Mindfulness, metta and the dhyanas

This article was published in the February 2014 issue of Shabda, the journal of the Triratna Buddhist Order.

I thought I’d try to say something about how mindfulness fits in with the dhyanas as I have recently been exploring this topic in my book. The path obviously involves both metta and mindfulness, as these are a large part of Buddhist ethics, have their own meditation practices, and are present at the highest reaches of the path (there is the term mettacetovimutti, which I take to mean ‘liberation of the mind through loving kindness.’) But how do they both fit in with the dhyanas and with the path to Nirvana as described in say the Mahasaccaka Sutta?


The key starting point to Gautama stepping onto the path to Nirvana was when he remembered the rose apple tree experience. The way that that is usually rendered is in terms him simply having a memory of an experience. Thanissaro translates the passage in the Mahasaccaka Sutta for instance as: ‘Then, following on from that memory came the conscious realisation: “This is the path to awakening.”‘ The Pali here is satanusari vinnanam ahosi eseva maggo bodhaya’ti and so the word being translated as memory here is sati.


It is common for us to think of mindfulness as recollection. This is largely due to the word smrti, the Sanskrit word usually rendered as mindfulness, whose root smr is rendered in the Monier Williams Sanskrit Dictionary as:


‘to remember , recollect , bear in mind , call to mind , think of , be mindful of’


But we need to bear in mind that Sanskrit is the language of the Vedas, and of the Vedic sacrificial religion which pre-dated the Buddha and whose doctrines he rejected. So we cannot really be sure how much the sense of smrti as ‘recollection’ isn’t influenced by its meaning in the Vedic context. There are two kinds of Vedic texts: the sruti and the smrti. The sruti are sacred texts such as the Rg Veda – a set of hymns to various gods – which were composed 900 years before the Buddha and which nobody has the right to alter. Unchanged, they have been passed down from one age to the next. The reason why they are called sruti is that the disciple hears their words from their guru (sruti literally means hearing.) The smrtis on the other hand are texts compiled by self-realized sages, called rishis, based upon their own insights into the sruti. (an modern day example is Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.) So the rishi maintains the Vedic tradition. When a part of the sruti gets lost due to a break in disciplic succession, the job of the rishi is to re-establish its meaning. So in the Vedic tradition the word smrti is connected with remembering and preserving that particular tradition. The Vedic sage is ‘mindful’ – to use the Buddhist term – of the meaning of the Vedas.


All of the terms we are familiar with in Buddhism such as Dharma and karma, to the extent that they existed before the Buddha, have undergone a transition from an alien tradition and have taken up a new meaning which is specifically Buddhist. So ‘Dharma’ made the transition from its meaning in the Vedic religion (and current in modern Hinduism) as ones’ caste duty to its Buddhist meaning of being the path the individual takes to liberation. ‘Karma’ has made the transition from being understood in Jainism as being applicable to every kind of action to its Buddhist meaning of being applicable only to willed actions of body speech and mind that may also be unconscious actions.


So in what way did the Buddha reinvent the concept of smrti? Well he obviously didn’t think it was concerned with recollecting the Vedas. He had rejected those and the doctrine of atman as unconducive to liberation from suffering. For him theword smrti may have carried over from its Vedic meaning an association with remembering what is spiritually important, what he saw as spiritually important was something other than recalling and interpreting the meaning of the Vedas. What he saw as spiritually important was bringing awareness to evaluating his own experience.


It makes the most sense that the point at which he remembered the rose apple tree experience and then said the phrase sat?nus?ri vinn?nam ahosi eseva maggo bodh?y?’ti and why he was able to claim he have found the path to Nirvana was that he was now applying some newly aquired skill of evaluating his own experience, which he called mindfulness. So rather than render the phrase sat?nus?ri vinn?namahosi eseva maggo bodh?y?’ti as: ‘Then, following on from that memory came the conscious realisation: “This is the path to awakening,”‘ it is better to render it: ‘Then, following on from mindfulness came the conscious realisation: “This is the path to awakening.”‘


One of the places in which the Buddhist scriptures talk a bit more about what mindfulness is is in the Questions of King Milinda. There the monk Nagasena explains to King Milinda that mindfulness is like the King’s treasurer in that the King’s treasurer knows the value of everything in the realm. He says that mindfulness ‘calls to mind and embraces’ everything that conduces to happiness. Not only that, it ‘takes hold’ of everything that leads to happiness and ‘lets go’ of everything that leads to suffering.


So Gautama ‘called to mind and embraced’ the first dhyana because he saw that it led to happiness. We could say that the ‘taking hold’ of it is more connected with sati as memory; we obviously need to keep hold of everything that is spiritually important, by remembering that it is important. So the first way that mindfulness is connected with the dhyanas is it embraces them as the path to Nirvana.


The other thing that Gautama notes around this time is firstly that the first dhyana arises: ‘in seclusion from sensuality and unskilful mental states.’ This is part of the same argument as above: that mindfulness sees what leads to happiness; as the first dhyana leads to Nirvana it leads to happiness; it therefore arises in seclusion from unskilful states which by definition lead to suffering. But it is worth noting that as well as reinventing the concept of smrti he is effectively inventing the Buddhist concept of skilfulness for the first time at this point. And the dhyanas, all being effectively intensifications of the first dhyana, are all therefore intensifications of skilfulness.


The dhyanas take us through a sequence of stages which are increasingly skilful because they are increasingly productive of happiness for ourselves and others. The hindrances are either unskilful mental states productive of suffering or, as the name suggests, they are states which hinder the production of happiness by making the mind unready in some way to be mindful or mettaful: either because it is too sluggish (torpor,) preoccupied (anxiety) or because the body, in being lethargic or restless, is unsupportive to it being mindful. The dhyanas as a whole represent a state in which we have overcome both of these problems: the mental states we are in are productive only of happiness and as we ascend the dhyanas our mind is inceasingly prepared for that task.


When I am leading meditation courses these days I start off by saying that what all humans – and living beings – have in common is they all want to be happy. And that if we want to bring happiness into the world for ourselves and others we need two basic things: we firstly need to want happiness for ourselves and others, which we develop through the mettabhavana meditation. And secondly we need to know how to bring happiness into the world, which is the job of mindfulness. So in this way the path of skilfulness largely consists of metta and mindfulness. And of course metta, when it is informed by insight, becomes equanimity.


Note that the qualities of mindfulness and equanimity are first mentioned in the textual descriptions of the dhyanas in the third dhyana. There the text says:


‘Furthermore, with the fading away of the desire for rapture, the monk, equanimous, mindful and clearly comprehending, experiences that happiness in the body about which the noble ones declare, “The one who is equanimous and mindful abides in happiness”, and enters and abides in the third dhyana.


And then in the fourth dhyana that mindfulness and equanimity has become pure:


‘Furthermore, great king, with the giving up (of reliance upon) of happiness and pain and the disappearance of the earlier elation and distress, the monk enters into and abides in the fourth dhyana, that is beyond pleasure or pain, and is purified by equanimity and mindfulness.


We can think of the notion of purity in Buddhism as refering to a person having state of mind which is productive only of happiness in the karmic sense. And as that purity is connected with the fourth dhyana, it has a degree of insight. The fourth dhyana is a state of mind which is productive only of happiness because mindfulness is strong in it and mindfulness is that state which ‘calls to mind and embraces’ everything that leads to happiness. But also because equanimity is strong in the fourth dhyana, when we are in that state we don’t allow our personal experience – that is, whether that experience is pleasurable or painful – to get in the way of the production of happiness.


It is helpful to think of the fourth dhyana as a ‘peak’ of skilfulness and that the other dhyanas inhibit that skilfulness in some way, in proportion to the number of their dhyana factors.


In the fourth dhyana the sole dhyana factor is one-pointed concentration. This indicates that the fourth dhyana is a complete, uninterupted and intense focus upon the creation of happiness. By contrast the experience of happiness in the third dhyana acts as a distraction from that focus. And likewise the experience of rapture (and happiness) does the same in the second dhyana and the act of thinking (and the experiences of rapture and happiness) does the same in the first dhyana.


Taking a ‘forward look’ through the dhyanas, instead of seeing them as mental states to be experienced it might be better to see each as representing something important that need to happen in order for us to be completely and effectively focused on creating happiness. The first dhyana, in this case, would represent the need to have our rational faculty on board in terms of the creation of happiness: in terms of ‘pointing’ the mind at the most skilful view concerning our experience. The second dhyana would represent the need to have our emotions on board: that ultimately we need to include, tame and harness our emotional energies to the project of creating happiness, if we are to be successful in it. The third dhyana would represent the need to be able to simply happy in the world whatever is happening, without any need to think or have strong experiences. And the fourth dhyana would represent the need to transcend personal happiness in order to focus on the more universal need for it, and in that to be unconcerned what our personal experience might be.


According to the Anupada Sutta both mindfulness and equanimity are present to some degree in each of the first seven dhyanas. This isn’t surprising as mindfulness needs to be present in order for us to make progress in creating happiness and that given a choice between the hindrances and the first dhyana, or between the first dhyana and the second dhyana, mindfulness will always choose the latter.


The way beyond the fourth dhyana can be seen in the Atthakanagara Sutta (MN52.) The householder Dasama asks Ananda if there is any one thing that the Buddha has said will bring Nirvana to a person who is living their spiritual life diligently, ardently and resolutely and Ananda replies that whenever a person enters into any of the four rupa jhanas, or any of the first three arupajhanas, or if, through practising any of the Brahmaviharas meditations they enter into a state of mind called ‘liberation of mind through loving kindness (mettacetovimutti,)’ or ‘liberation of mind through compassion (karunacetovimutti,)’ ‘liberation of mind through sympathetic joy (muditacetovimutti)’ or ‘liberation of mind through equanimity (upekkhacetovimutti)’ and they consider that that state is conditioned and volitionally produced (and therefore impermanent,) and if they can remain steady in that insight, then they attain the destruction of the biases. So being mindful of the impermanent nature of any of these elevated states is obvious the key to progressing to Nirvana. At this Dasama thanks Ananda for having given him eleven ways to attain Nirvana when he had only asked for one.


Author: Mahabodhi

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