The Fourth Noble Truth is the Noble Eightfold
Continuing our look at the eightfold path:
Three more steps on the path come under the heading of meditation or samadhi. The Buddha attained his enlightenment after meditating for six years. Meditation allows our minds to become clearer so we can see the world as it really is, without illusion. Our minds are full of many thoughts; it acts like a drunken monkey, jumping from branch to branch, never stopping. All these thoughts distract us from being in each moment. And if we are not in the moment, we have missed our lives, for the moment is all that exists.
If we have a glass of water and put some dirt in it, hoping the dirt will settle to the bottom, it does us no good to take a spoon and push the dirt down. The water only becomes muddy. However, if we let the glass sit on the counter, the dirt will settle to the bottom, and the water will become clear. We can not force that clarity. We must simply encourage it to happen by sitting on our cushions and, at least for those moments, not adding any fuel to the fire.
That we cannot force this is obvious. If we try not to think of elephants, elephants come into our mind. The harder we try, the more elephants surround us. Indian elephants, African elephants, pink elephants, wild elephants like the one Devadattu sent to kill the Buddha and even Dumbo, the flying elephant, all walk across our inner field of vision. But if we just sit and watch our thoughts, without pursuing them, we see that they pass away after they arise. The elephants walk right out of our minds. It is a continual process, rising and passing away. We do not need to do anything about thoughts, simply see them and let them go.
The three steps that lead to samadhi are Right Concentration, Right Mindfulness and Right Effort. When we meditate, we develop our powers of concentration as well as our skill in being mindful. Different meditation techniques help us to focus on these two areas.
Concentration comes when we have an object of meditation and discipline our minds to pay attention to that object while allowing our thoughts to arise and fall without pursuing them. Counting the breath is one of the techniques that helps with concentration. Breathing normally, we count each exhalation, from one to ten and back down to one again. We may lose our count, find ourselves not counting at all or counting up to seventeen. No problem. Just return to one and begin again. As we repeat this practice, we find our skills of concentration growing.
For samadhi to happen, for concentration to lead to liberation, we must use an object that is free of all craving, all aversion, all desire. Concentration on an object of desire, some material thing, a potential sexual partner, a new job, will not free us, but only consume us more into the sense realm.
As our powers of concentration become stronger, we feel more relaxed and full of energy. Our breath becomes lighter and softer. As our mind reaches tranquility, our body also becomes calm and our metabolism slows down. This is very restful and allows us to maintain the state of samadhi for a longer period of time. We can stop trying and thus practice with ease.
To develop mindfulness, a good practice is to begin by watching the breath as air enters and leaves our nostrils. We can also watch at our abdomen, seeing the rising and falling of our diaphragm. When we have done this practice for a while, we may direct our mindfulness to other areas of our bodies. During walking meditation, we focus on the movement of our feet. Right foot, left foot, raise, push forward, step. This exercise can also be done while we are eating, being totally aware of holding our fork, picking up the food, moving the food to our mouths, chewing the food, swallowing, etc. But it all starts with mindfulness while we are seated on our meditation cushion.
Right effort means that we must continue to practice even when we think we are not making progress. Meditation needs to be a part of our daily lives. Just as we brush our teeth when we get up in the morning, so we need to meditate on a daily basis. It takes time to overcome the habits of a lifetime. We must work patiently and persistently to return attention to the object of our meditation whenever we have strayed. Only thus will we change the wandering ways of the mind.
The last two steps on the path come under the heading of wisdom or prajna and are Right Thought and Right Understanding.
Right Thought refers to the contents of our minds. We do not need to be overwhelmed by negative thinking. If we continually judge ourselves and others, our minds are not at peace. Just like not opening the door of our homes to any stranger who passes by, we do not need to let just any thoughts enter our minds. And if they do get in, we do not need to pay attention to them, just let them pass through. When we worry a lot, we cannot see the beauty around us. When we fill our minds with opinions and dichotomies, we are not open to seeing reality nor finding our true selves.
Right Understanding is about the way things really are, the way the world works. It is the opposite of ignorance and illusion. Only when we can put our little selves, our egos, aside, can we understand how the world works. We are connected to everything and contain everything. Soto Zen teaches that we are already enlightened. We only need to brush away the clouds that prevent us from manifesting this understanding.
Dakini--Goddess of Life's Turning Points For more info, click here
The Buddha's awakening was based on his seeing his true self. When he attained anuttarasamyaksambodhi, complete and perfect enlightenment, he laughed. He had thought he would find what he sought outside of himself, but he discovered the truth was within all along, none other than his own true nature which was ever with him. That same Buddha nature is within all of us. We too can attain awakening.
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