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[ Beginner's Questions ]

A Beginner's Question

H2apo: A friend told me today that I should be careful in my quest for enlightenment, that depending on my methods, I can unintentionally warp my spirit wheel, my luminous body, etc. How should I approach this warning? Should I stay with one method of meditation?

 


 

Your friend has a good point. In fact it is easy to say that what he is saying is the entire point.

Appamāda! Be Careful!

How do you know?

Whom are you to believe?

Here we go by a combination of methods.

First and foremost is not to take anything on faith.

Second is to examine things very carefully and see "the relationship of this to that" so that you can determine from your own personal experience when going "that way" is going the wrong way and going This Way is leading you further and further away from the wrong way.

This link takes you to the formula the Buddha gave to his son for evaluating his acts:

How to Judge for Yourself

You should read this and see if it appeals to your sense of what is well said.

After that the very first question you need to ask is:

What are "Good Conditions" and What are "Bad Conditions"?

Here you do not go by how it feels,
you do not go by the law of the land,
the word of the elders,
the pronouncement of some authority,
because hear-say say so,
because it is traditional "The custom of my people," or
because it is the conclusion reached after thinking over reasons
— all of these are subject to corruptive influences and can mislead.

For example, it can be seen that the same thing can make you feel good at one time and feel bad at another; that the consequences of doing a thing that can make you feel good in the present can make you feel very bad later. So what is used is an objective set of values based not on getting what is good, but on eliminating what is bad.

The idea is that the individual is essentially pure but is corrupted from influences that come from without — that by ridding one's self of those influences one need not worry about what is good.

What the Buddha has done is to boil the whole spectrum of "Bad Conditions" down to one basic concept, what he named dukkha. You know: Do-do, uk, ukky, k-kha. Or, in polite company, "Pain".

So then at this point you need to ask yourself again: Does this make sense to me? Is ending Pain a reasonable proposition for the description of a good direction?

Or are you a person who loves Pain?

If you are of such a nature as loves pain, then this is not the system for you.

Up past this point you go by a two-sided method:
On the one hand you don't take anyone's word for anything, (and that includes what the Buddha says), you go strictly by "Are good conditions increasing and bad conditions decreasing?".
On the other hand, you give what the Buddha has said and has proven to be effective credit.

You say something like: "OK, I tried 1one, 2two, 3three, and each time what he said proved to work, I'll give four a try."

So you adopt, as a matter of trial and error and testing, the next step, and you observe carefully and evaluate the results and continue on This Way.

What the Buddha is saying is that he has The Way to Uttermost Freedom from Dukkha worked out step-by-step all the way to the end in a way that any intelligent individual who works at it with energy and care will be able to see the end result in this life[1] for himself.

If you are still reading to this point then the next thing you should do is to begin at the beginning of the introductory course: The Gradual Course and read and do what it says according to this trial and error testing and seeing for yourself method. Just reading it won't do you much good! This is one system where you have got to walk it like you talk it.

This introductory course is not my own invention. This is the course that was taught to beginners by Ananda during the time of the Buddha.[2] In the end, you will never out-grow this "introductory" course, it goes all the way to the top, but it is constructed in very basic terms that the laymen of the time could easily remember and which has an order to it which leads progressively into the more complex details of the system. Everyone who thinks the Buddha might have an answer to the problem of ending their pain should begin there.

 

§

 

G: As to the matter of faith, what do you make of this remark by Venerable Bodhi?

'I believe that for the practice of meditation to fulfill the purpose entrusted to it by the Buddha, it must be strongly supported by other factors, which nurture the practice and direct it towards its proper goal. These factors include faith, in the sense of trusting confidence in the triple gem — the Buddha, Dhamma, and the Sangha ...'[3]

Faith is a Force (Indriani) and a Power (Balani), and there is certainly a place for faith of a sort in the Buddha's method. I think I allowed for it's inclusion in the statement:

"Up past this point you go by a two-sided method:

On the one hand you don't take anyone's word for anything, (and that includes what the Buddha says), you go strictly by "Are good conditions increasing and bad conditions decreasing?".

On the other hand, you give what the Buddha has said and has proven to be effective credit and trusting previous success to be a good indicator of future success, one attempts the next step out of a faith based in a spirit of testing the truth.

What I believe Bhikkhu Bodhi describes is directed at those who do not wish to think for themselves. There are numerous places in the suttas which indicate that the Buddha was well aware that there were people of this sort out there that had this sort of faith in him; on the other hand I do not recall any place in the suttas where he taught this sort of blind faith.

He does say in several places that even those with this sort of blind faith could be considered Streamwinners (but as a matter of practicality, faith or not, if they have not achieved the breaking of saccayaditthi[4] (one truth view, or belief in self) unless at death they cling unwaveringly to this faith such that they DO break this yoke to rebirth, they can possibly even lose that faith so are Streamwinners only in-so-far as they keep on the path; in other words, it's a very loose definition of Streamwinner), on the other hand the description of faith is always conditioned by an indication that this faith is based on an understanding of the problem and the Buddha's method for it's solution:

"Here the well-tamed, well-trained, well-educated student of the Ariyanam has faith: This is the awakened one, an arahant, knower of worlds, consummate trainer of men willing to be trained, a number one wide awakened one."

In this regard, there is also the person known as the Faith-Freed. (See Give-Ear: The Seven Types of Individuals): Liberated at Heart and Faith Follower

You can see in this that this is not really a description of one with blind faith, but one who has a reasonable grasp of the system but may not have accomplished too much yet. He can see (we can guess from a number of sources: seeing others accomplishments, the example of the Buddha, some small advancements of his own, etc) that he knows the importance of energy, mindfulness, concentration, and exercising wisdom...and presumably these things as defined in this system, not as defined elsewhere.

I think it would be a risky choice for a teacher to be making for his students to teach blind faith. There are those who will only have interest in the system as far as faith, but to assume that those one is teaching are of this sort seems to be assuming one knows much.

Bhikkhu Thanissaro uses the word "conviction" in his translations[5] of "saddha." I think this is a good choice in that it reflects the quality of thought that the buddhist version of faith must carry.

 


 

K2: I've been sitting for about 20 minutes to a half hour an evening for the past 10 days. Last night my foot fell asleep. I acknowledged the sensation — "numb, numb" — and returned to my breath. Of course I wanted to wiggle my foot but I thought that was the "wrong" thing to do, so instead I kept nodding to the sensation and then tried to let it go. But this morning I wondered, what if I hadn't been meditating for twenty minutes in my apartment, what if I had been meditating for twenty hours in a forest in Thailand and my foot fell asleep, couldn't I have damaged my circulatory system by remaining still?
So what is my question?
I think it is this: I understand there is value to the method of "not doing" in response to fleeting physical sensations (itches, drools — stuff like that) because if nothing else it teaches that everything passes, but is there ever a time when some kind of assessment of possible damage, and then acting on it — doing rather than observing — is called for?

 

§

 

The following link deals with my suggested method for dealing with this pain:
Assume the Position
Also look back a little on the same page for a few other tips on getting started with sitting practice.

Essentially, in the beginning you do need to take a balanced approach in my opinion. If you were face-to-face with the Buddha, and had the support system in place that was in place then, it would be reasonable to take the "iron man" approach and just grit your teeth and take your chances. After all, what we are really saying here is "This worldly life is not worth living without knowing the answers," and therefore getting the answers is worth injury and death to find. The Bhikkhus are giving up their wives, homes, wealth, everything for a bowl and an old rag, and are taking their chances on the good will of others to give them a scrap of food now and again in order to attain this goal.

For the most part the circulatory system will accommodate and will adjust to a body that is remaining perfectly still for long periods of time. There have been known to be cases where serious injury occured from doing this, however, and, as I said, without a support system in place, you chance getting an injury, getting discouraged, and quitting and living the rest of your life with the injury and a resentment of the situation for causing it. That would not be a good thing.

So I am suggesting taking it a bit at a time, taking it a bit further each time. If once in a while you make a strong extra effort you will notice that the pain will go from the foot to the calf and then maybe to the other foot and then to the other calf and then back. This will tell you that there is adjustment going on and that you can look forward to a time when you will be able to sit for hours at a time without pain. Remember, we are saying here that "Nothing Lasts". That includes Pain.

To restore circulation rapidly, by the way. Stand up, keep the foot flat on the floor, and do shallow knee bends. If you wish to substitute a remedial action for giving up and doing something else, then, while still seated, work the foot up and down as with the knee bend and massage the sole of the foot (There, you see, in Buddhism, we do say there is a sole!).

Now, as to "numb numbs": doing this while practicing "not doing" is a contradiction in methods. Speaking words to yourself is a "doing". In the beginning you need to break up your sitting practice into routines or elements of the practice:
just managing to sit reasonably still for a while;
developing concentration (I suggest focus on the breathing);
paying attention;
developing insight through applying dhamma examination to what you are paying attention to; and
letting go (not doing).
Go round and round doing each of these individually for a while rather than trying to do them all simultaneously.

 


[1] There will be those along this way, calling themselves "Buddhists", who will say: "There is no sense striving, enlightenment is a result of many lifetimes of accumulations, these are the days of the decline, beings are unable to reach the jhanas, it's better just to do good deeds and study the Abhidhamma, the good results will come in future lives." In so far as it is incontrovertable that the Buddha has said that this Dhamma is something asking to be put into practice by the intelligent, and is not a matter of Time, the advice of such individuals should be put to one side, wishing them all the best on their side trip.

[2] It is largely due to Ananda and his photographic memory that we today have a record of what the Buddha taught. This is an old tradition, to begin a lesson, or "sutta", a spell, with the words: Evaŋ me Sutaŋ, meaning "I hear tell," (well: e = here; va = go; me suta = earing; or, eva = thus; me; hear; most often translated: "Thus Have I Heard") where the "I" or "me" was originally Ananda, reciting what the Buddha had said at The First Council where what we have here today as "The Pali" or what the Buddha said, was first compiled together.
Ananda, who is most often described as "The Buddha's Man-servant who was also his cousin," took on the very honorable position of the Buddha's personal attendant on the condition that he be told of any sutta given by the Buddha that he did not hear face-to-face.

[3] Insight Journal, the Journal of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.

[4] See The Ten Fundamental Attachments

[5] The Saddha Sutta, Bhikkhu Thanissaro, trans


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