What Mahabodhi has been up to

Manchester Buddhist Centre newsletter June-July 2012

What Mahabodhi has been up to …

Just over eight years ago I started writing a book. Originally the book was to be on ritual as that was my speciality around the centre. I had developed some ideas that I, and others, seemed to find helpful and so I thought I would share them. However, as I continued to write, after a couple of years I realized that I wanted also to talk about the meditative atmosphere required for ritual, that ritual was a way of approaching reality that was part of a bigger picture and this led me in the direction of mindfulness, which is the new topic of my book.

In his lectures on the Noble Eightfold Path Sangharakshita talks about Perfect Mindfulness in terms of four ‘levels of awareness.’ He explained later that the more traditional teaching of the four foundations of mindfulness, which is contained within the Satipatthana Sutta, tended to be interpreted rather narrowly and cognitively, and practised with that interpretation he saw that mindfulness could lead to alienation. And so when he talks about mindfulness he emphasizes an integrated approach which includes the whole person, and in particular includes valuing the emotions. The whole person, conscious and subconscious, needed to be brought on board the spiritual life. And this is the approach we now have in the Triratna Community.

So in his exposition of the four ‘levels of awareness:’ ‘awareness of the environment / things;’ awareness of self;’ awareness of other people;’ and ‘awareness of reality,’ Sangharakshita does in fact subsume the traditional four foundations of mindfulness under the categories of ‘awareness of self’ and ‘awareness of reality,’ – ‘awareness of self’ including awareness of body, feelings and thoughts (the first three foundations,) and ‘awareness of reality’ representing awareness of mental objects or dhammas (the fourth foundation) – but he adds to them two new categories: ‘awareness of the environment / things’ and ‘awareness of other people.’ These two categories are, he says, implicit in the body of Buddhist teachings and would, in the Buddha’s day, have been taken for granted, but in the modern sophisticated West they were often overlooked and therefore needed to be reemphasized, in order to restore a balance where emotional development and maturity were included within the Buddhist conception of mindfulness along with paying attention.

As my book has developed I have felt a need to try to understand better the four foundations of mindfulness, and to see if they couldn’t be better understood along the lines of Sangharakshita’s vision. Reading them, I was often quite dissatisfied with traditional commentaries on the Sutta, whose interpretations seemed somewhat arbitrary. And having an enquiring mind trained, among other places, in the physics dept at Manchester University, I set about trying to come up with a more satisfactory explanation that the ones being offered. Thus began what was to be an extremely slow – almost ‘glacial’ – process of unearthing the meaning of the central concepts of the Sutta: namely the four objects of contemplation:  kaya (body,)  vedana (feelings,)  citta (mind including emotions) and  dharmas (mental objects, which constitute a person’s views,) but also how the whole Sutta fit together. I now see mindfulness as quite simply ‘bringing awareness to experience in such a way that resolves suffering and brings about happiness.’

At a certain point in my journey I was struck by a similarity between a well-known model from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy called the cognitive model (Mind Over Mood p4) and the four foundations of mindfulness. The cognitive model enumerates four aspects of being human: physical reactions (the physical dimension,) moods, behaviours and thoughts. These are arranged in a square in which the four aspects constantly interact with each other and they express why it is possible to influence one’s mood by monitoring and changing either what one is doing physically, how one is behaving and what one is thinking, all of which contribute to the mood. The four aspects in the model seemed not dissimilar to body, feelings, mind and mental objects and so reflecting on the cognitive model seeded the idea that the four foundation ‘objects’ were related to each other through the Law of Conditionality: that is, that mindfulness of body supported mindfulness of feeling, mindfulness of feeling supported mindfulness of mind, and so on, in an augmentative fashion. This was an exciting insight for me, as it connected mindfulness with the central truth in Buddhism, that of Conditionality. I thought it would be good to share these ideas with the wider mindfulness community and, in 2008, I presented them at the 6th International Congress of Cognitive Psychotherapy in Rome. I produced a paper, which I gave out, and I stood by a poster for a couple of hours while some of the delegates asked me questions. The poster was later published in an Italian online journal Psychomed. It, along with articles I have written for the Triratna Order journal Shabda, are available on my website at www.mahabodhi.org.uk.

In the last decade there has been a growth of secular interest in mindfulness around the world: people are tasting raisins here there and everywhere!, and a growing interest in the relationship of Buddhism to Science. To understand the issues involved I have studied the literature on mindfulness in psychology journals, and I attended a few mindfulness conferences as well as a colloquium at Oxford University on Buddhism and Science. It is easy to get excited about developments in interest in mindfulness and Buddhism, but Sangharakshita found when he was in India that interest and social acceptance often come at a price. He would be urged, when giving a talk at a large religious gathering, to say that Buddhism was part of Hinduism, when it is philosophically completely different. Today it is seductive to say that Buddhism is just like Science, in order for it to be accepted into mainstream society, but no-one ever attained Nirvana practising science (by measuring someone’s brainwaves with electrodes,) only by embedding themselves in a Sangha, being wholly present to the Buddhist community, and by practising integration, positive emotion, spiritual receptivity, spiritual death and spiritual rebirth, do people ever get to that state. And the alienating effects of Science may in fact get in the way of progress. In this article I have talked about three different views of mindfulness: the secular view; the ‘cognitive’ Buddhist view; and Sangharakshita’s view. Each has in common the ability to resolve suffering and to bring about happiness, but where they differ is in the degree to which they do that. Secular mindfulness-based therapies (MBTs) only resolve suffering at the level of an individual’s response to their experience: they help people live better with that experience. Buddhist mindfulness conceived cognitively, as practiced in Theravadin Buddhist schools – and some MBTs have often descended from schools with this approach (via the Insight Meditation Society) does more to overcome suffering than an MBT, because it has a broader scope. Among other things, mindfulness as conceived in Buddhism relieves the suffering that comes from being unethical in relation to other beings, which secular therapies do not presume to address. And mindfulness as conceived by Sangharakshita goes the furthest in relieving suffering, in the sense that he includes within awareness the dangers of practicing mindfulness too conceptually, which, by not including the emotions, may lead to alienation. Sangharakshita’s view of mindfulness may in fact bring more happiness that the other forms of mindfulness, but the process may not be as easy: it may involve facing more suffering, including the embarrassing degree to which many of us are unintegrated and alienated.

In meditation courses at the MBC we have been teaching mindfulness along the lines of the usual definition used in mindfulness therapies: that mindfulness is being aware; in the present moment; non-judgmentally. In my teaching I have started to introduce a model which includes the four foundations of mindfulness – but the four foundations conceived more broadly as including positive emotion – as WHAT that mindfulness is aimed at, because the definition does not specify it. The four foundations of mindfulness, along with the human context of time and space, are represented as Russian dolls nestling the one inside the other. See diagram.


They are the (only) places were suffering, and happiness, either happens or originates from. So by bringing mindfulness to our situation, which includes each of the four areas, we can overcome all the suffering in our being and thus attain Nirvana, hence the ‘direct path’ to Nirvana. This conception of the four foundations of mindfulness as representing the whole of the person (‘emotions’ are contained within ‘mind,’ and ‘views’ include those we are both conscious and unconscious of) chimes with Sangharakshita’s connection of mindfulness with integration.

The way to approach the model is as follows. We first become aware of where we are in time. We become aware of all the moments of our life in the past, those in the future, and then we try to arrive where we are now – here in this present moment. We then consciously become aware of where we are in space – the Earth, the city, the MBC, and gradually ‘arrive’ into our environment.

Once we are confident we are present in time and space, we turn our attention to the next layer in: our physical body. Body and feelings are our experience: they are ‘a given.’ Absorbed in life’s demands we can tend to forget that we have a body, which is unfortunate as we are then unconscious when our body is in a state of tension – except for a nagging sense of ‘stress.’ So we need to remember that we have a body, to turn our awareness towards it and to look after it, so that it will then look after us. To do this we need to get beyond our thinking mind and connect with our sense of touch. If we can contact that we can enjoy the reassurance that comes with having a body. We can enjoy our body! Our body knows how to sit down. We just let it do that, align our skeleton so that it better supports our weight, and relax our muscles. Relaxation is a physical thing; like the unfurling of a fist!

Then the next level in is our feelings. We develop a general sense of how we are – are we happy or sad; or overexcited; or distracted? What is going on? Is there anything we can do about our feelings? Or do we just need to accept them? Our feelings too give us a sense of what we might need to work on in meditation.

Little diagram

Being present in the moment, comfortable in our body, and aware of our feelings, we now have a foundation that will allow us to work on different aspects of our responses to life: our mind (which include our emotions) and our views. Depending on what we want to develop we can choose from a range of meditation practices: if we want to relax we can do a body-scan; if we want to develop awareness and become more integrated, we can do the mindfulness of breathing meditation; if we want to catch up with ourselves and our feelings after a busy day we can ‘just sit’ (receptivity;) and if we want to work on developing positive emotion we can do the metta bhavana (loving kindness) meditation. Or we could choose, if we are feeling more robust, to reflect on the adequacy of our views about ourselves to cope with change and to let go of those views that are inadequate to the task (spiritual death,) or, we could visualize a Buddha or Bodhisattva to invoke the qualities we might like to cultivate to help us on the path to Nirvana (spiritual rebirth.) This model seems to work really well on meditation courses: people seem to really understand what they need to do.

As to when the book will be finished, I can’t really say, perhaps it is my life’s work. Insights seem to occur on a time scale of every six months or a year. However, short of finishing the book, my work still seems to be having an effect. I put regular articles into Shabda, which go out to the whole Order. Wrathful figures in Buddhism tend to be protectors – the entrances to temples in Japan often have huge wrathful statues to ward of the unintegrated and negative forces in the environment and to preserve in the temple the integrated and positive forces. The tenth head of the eleven headed and one-thousand armed Avalokitesvara: the Bodhisattva of compassion – a figure I meditate upon daily – is a wrathful and dark blue one. Protecting or ‘guarding the gates’ of the Dharma is a strong aspect of my personal myth, and I identify with that head. I see it as keeping the other (peaceful and compassionate) heads pointing in the right direction, but not only that, keeping my own head pointing in the right direction.

You can view this article in the Manchester Buddhist Centre newsletter here – MBC newsletter June-July 2012





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Author: Mahabodhi

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