Mindfulness and the four arrows

This article is adapted from a thread submitted to and published in Shabda, the in-house journal of the Triratna Buddhist Order, in October 2014. It addresses the issue of practising or promoting secular mindfulness within a Buddhist context, and in particular the Triratna context.


A series of meetings were held early in 2014 to talk about live issues for practice within the Triratna Buddhist Community (TBC) and one of the topics was ‘Mindfulness,’ specifically how secular mindfulness should be integrated into our Buddhist movement. I was not at this meeting but as I have been thinking independently about this topic for a number of years, I would like to share my views with you about it.

First of all I would like to say that to the extent that secular mindfulness-based therapies help people overcome suffering I am completely behind them. The work that Breathworks do in this area is brilliant, and the fact that mindfulness and compassion are becoming valued in secular society is a good thing. Having said that, there are people who have voiced the concern that secular mindfulness lacks an ethical dimension, and the evidence they have given is that it is now being used in corporate business and by the military, whose ethics are often questionable.


I think the main reason why this is the case is because of something well known in religious education circles: the difference between a professional approach and a confessional one. A confessional teacher teaches their own faith to children of that faith, whereas whatever the beliefs of a professional teacher are, they have to teach as if all religions are equal options. So in this age – secular just means ‘of the age’ – in the West, in order to gain approval and funding, things have to be professionally presented, in the sense that they do not promote a particular value system, including a particular ethical system. So in this system you can teach mindfulness to soldiers to help them deal with their stress – ethics to do with personal health and well being are non-controversial – but you cannot teach them mindfulness in order that they don’t go round shooting people. That has to be left to their own consciences.


With our self designated project of bringing Buddhism to the West, what we are dealing with here is our main collective problem – in the sense Bhante means it: not a difficulty. This is our MAIN COLLECTIVE KOAN. How do you deal with the boundary between the actual values of the majority of society in the West and the values of Triratna Buddhism or any other Buddhism. Different Buddhist groups deal with this in different ways. The Tibetans have built a bridge to Western society and its scientific–technological paradigm through organisations like the Mind and Life Institute. They allude to the similarities between Buddhism and Science alike and even go so far as to teach science in the monasteries. But in that debate the discussions stalled on getting the scientists to accept miracles. But while Buddhist practices like meditation are getting ‘validated’ by scientific methods, I wonder what the price is that we are paying for that, in the way that Buddhism is being re-interpreted. Science has gained kudos through its association with Buddhism: the scientists look pleased to be hanging out with the Dalai Lama! But in return I sometimes feel Buddhism is being reduced to a toolkit to be sold, as with any technology. At the boundary between Buddhism and secular society it feels like the potential benefits to Buddhism are high. But the stakes – what there is to lose – are also high. And I think we need to not be naive about that and to watch carefully for what we might be losing.


Trying to understand mindfulness from a Buddhist perspective might be a start.


Vidyamala led a very enjoyable mindfulness workshop on the Combined Convention, which drew both on her Breathworks material and on the Satipatthana retreats she leads at Taraloka. I am sure we are all familiar with the teaching of the two arrows, but Vidyamala also talked about the two kinds of feeling that the Buddha mentions in the Satipatthana Sutta called worldly and spiritual feelings, which we might think of as the third and fourth arrows. She got us to focus on and nurture any expansive feelings that were present in our experience, or more technically, any spiritual feelings.


So what are the third and fourth arrows? The third arrow: worldly feeling, is explicitly linked in the Niramisa Sutta with attachment to sensory experience, but I think it is quite valid to see it more broadly as any feeling which arises in connection with unskilful mental states. So we walk down the street and our enemy comes around the corner and we feel pain, this is the third arrow: painful worldly feeling. But the pain only happens because our mind is in the unskilful state of aversion. Or we see a cake and we feel pleasure because we have been struck by the pleasant arrow shot by greed or infatuation (arrows are normally painful but maybe this is like Cupid’s arrow.)


The fourth arrow: spiritual feeling, is explicitly linked in the Niramisa Sutta with the rapture and happiness of the dhyanas, but again I think it is quite valid to see it more generally any feeling which arises in connection with skilful mental state. So when we see someone suffering and it is painful to us, we have been struck by the fourth arrow of painful spiritual feeling, but only because our mind is in the skilful state of compassion. Equally, when we see someone doing well and we feel happy, we have been struck by the pleasant arrow of pleasant spiritual feeling. But the pleasure only happens because our mind is in the skilful state of sympathetic joy.


Obviously, as Buddhists, we want to bring happiness into the world, and so worldly feelings should not be acted upon, but spiritual feelings should be. We should rush forward to help the person in pain and express our delight when we see them doing well.


Secular mindfulness practitioners lack an ethical dimension to their practice to the extent that they focus only on the first two arrows: bodily feeling or sensation and mental feeling or mood. In a way their focus is on THEIR OWN EXPERIENCE and on how they best cope with it, whereas if they were sensitive to worldly feeling and spiritual feeling their focus would also be on OTHER PEOPLE. If the sniper looking through his sight were to ask himself if the numbness he was feeling as he lined up his target was worldly feeling or spiritual feeling, he would be forced to admit that it was neutral worldly feeling, led to suffering, and therefore should not be acted upon. But he is unlikely to do that unless he has the conception of worldly and spiritual feeling in the first place. But as I indicated earlier, it would be unprofessional to teach him mindfulness of worldly and spiritual feelings, as they involve a specific ethical perspective, which is the Buddhist notion of skilfulness.


So I think that secular mindfulness, by definition, has to stay in a particular relationship to Buddhism, maybe a bit like the one yoga has to Buddhism. There are ways in which yoga is supportive to Buddhism. We all have a body, and whatever state our body is in either supports or hinders our effort to be aware, skilful, spiritually energetic and so on. So an effective yoga – or martial arts – practice combined with a dharma practice is MORE DHARMIC than the dharmic practice on its own. It is perhaps the same with secular mindfulness practice, in the sense that if one is consistently focused on moment-to-moment mindfulness AND one also has a traditional Triratna dharma practice, then that is MORE DHARMIC than the dharmic practice on its own, and I think that some trainers in mindfulness-based approaches feel this strongly.


However, if, as a Buddhist yoga teacher, or a Buddhist secular mindfulness trainer, through trying to accommodate the sensibilities and views attached to yoga or to secular mindfulness, you TAKE THEM ON and replace your Buddhist views with them, then that is LESS DHARMIC than the dharma practice you were doing before.


We therefore need to be careful, for instance, that we don’t REPLACE our Buddhist practice of mindfulness with the MBSR method of enquiry. I would prefer we didn’t teach Kabat-Zinn’s version of mindfulness in our Buddhist Centre dharma classes UNLESS we both understand clearly what we are doing and it enhances their dharmic output. I want us to be teaching a Buddhist model of mindfulness in our Buddhist Centres. But to do that we need to be clear what that is. The obvious model to base it upon would be the four foundations of mindfulness. But if we do that, we need to be careful not to import in a Theravadin interpretation that focuses too narrowly on insight as that would be unhelpful. When I began to regularly teach meditation on courses at the Manchester Centre about 5 or 6 years ago, the model being taught was Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness, which was helpful to a degree, though it strained to fully explain Buddhist meditation. As my understanding of the Satipatthana Sutta developed, I gradually ADDED to Kabat-Zinn’s definition a more Buddhist presentation of mindfulness. Nishpara – who frequently co-leads meditation courses with me – said: Kabat-Zinn tells us WHAT mindfulness is – being aware, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, but what the Buddha adds to that is he tells us exactly WHAT to bring mindfulness to, namely the four foundations of mindfulness. How these are to be interpreted I will suggest in an article in the next Shabda.


Author: Mahabodhi

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