02 Introduction to the 4 applications of mindfulness

25 Aug 2012

Meditation: Settling body, speech, and mind in the natural state; Bare attention; Application of mindfulness on the body
Teaching: Alan begins by distinguishing between mindfulness, bare attention, vipassana, choiceless awareness, open presence, and dzogchen.
As an entry point to vipasyana, it necessary to undo the conflation between that which is being presented and our superimposition of labels, memories, like/dislike, etc... Vipasyana is an expedition which attends to and engages with all appearances of reality without falling into old ruts. Someone suitable for the expedition possesses 3 qualities: 1) being perceptive, 2) being open-minded, and 3) putting teachings into practice.
In the Sattipathana sutta, the Buddha calls the 4 applications of mindfulness the „direct path“ to the „realization of nirvana“.
Samadhi is prerequisite for the wisdom teachings to penetrate, purify, transform, and liberate the mind. The foundation of samadhi is sila (ethics).

Meditation starts at 00:00

Download (MP3 / 49 MB)



Now with fewer words of guidance, let’s settle the body speech and mind in its natural state, beginning as always by letting the awareness descend into the field of the body right down to the ground. Let your awareness permeate the whole field of the body illuminating the sensations throughout.

Gently attend those areas that feel tight and as you breathe out, surrender those muscles to gravity, soften, and loosen. Soften all the muscles of the face. With your body relaxed and at ease, be still apart from the movement of the breath and adopt a posture of vigilance with your spine straight, your chest slightly lifted. Abdominal muscles loose and relaxed so that when you breathe in, the sensations of the breath you feel from the bottom up, as if you are filling a vase with water. The sensations of the breath go down to the belly as you continue to inhale after the belly then the diaphragm expands, and if it is a deep breath, finally the chest will expand.

And in this way settle your body in its natural state, relaxed, still and vigilant and then settle your respiration in its natural rhythm, relaxing deeply and fully through every out breath as you release tension in the body, release the breath and release thoughts, images, memories that may come to mind.

Relax so deeply and fully throughout the out-breath right through the end that you feel as if the in-breath is just flowing in on its own accord, that it is being given to you without your taking it. In other words don’t pull it in. Let it flow in. And apply your will to your own mind and deliberately release all concerns, just for the time being, all concerns related to the future and the past. Allow yourself this freedom and this luxury to let your awareness come to rest quietly and non-conceptually in stillness in the present moment.

Now as if you are rebooting a computer, shutting down all the operating systems, all the programs without pulling the plug, for just a brief time, let your eyes be open. Evenly rest your awareness in the space in front of you but without meditating on anything, shut down all your programs without taking anything as an object without directing your attention here or there. Just rest with no object, just being aware, without deliberately attending to any appearances either sensory or mental, just let your awareness hover, motionless in the present moment.

Sustain this flow of non-conceptual, mindful presence, without distraction and without grasping, without allowing your attention to be drawn away to any sensory stimulus, without being caught up and carried away by thoughts. Let your awareness hold its own ground without being caught up or being carried away in distraction and sustain this awareness without grasping, without being launch onto, labeling, conceptualizing, preferring anything. Just being present.

Now taking the first step towards the close application of mindfulness to the body, which includes all physic phenomena, not just your own and others’ body. As an initial step, let your awareness illuminate all of the 5 sensory fields, the visual, the auditory, the olfactory (the field of smells), the gustatory (of taste) and the tactile. Without preference and without moving let your awareness illuminate all of these 5 sensory fields, while sounds come and go, tactile sensations come and go, let your awareness be still and to the best of your ability, let your awareness remain in a non-conceptual mode, a quiet witness, discerning, attentive, clear and sharp but without superimposing categories, labels, judgments. In other words rest in clarity and receptivity.

While your mindfulness illuminates these 5 fields of sensory experience, apply your faculty of introspection to monitor the flow of mindfulness, to recognize as swiftly as possible when you have fallen into excitation, agitation, the mind has become distracted and as soon as you see that excitation is set in, apply the response, the remedy: first of all relax, loosen up, then release whatever captivated your attention, and thirdly return to the present moment, your mindfulness open to all of the 5 sense fields. So relax, release and return.

It is imperative to maintain a flow of knowing, not spacing out, not becoming vague. So when you see with your faculty of introspection that you are losing clarity, becoming a bit dull, recognize the laxity and apply the appropriate remedy. Refresh your interest in the practice, refocus your attention in the present moment and retain a flow of mindfulness. Refresh, refocus and retain.

Commentary on This Practice:

Like putting our toe in the water! Just getting a little tiny taste. So one might wonder, what was that practice? Shall we give it a name? I don’t have a label. I do know, though, that the first book on Buddhist meditation that I ever read, that I could actually understand, was The Heart of Buddhist Meditation by a German monk, scholar, translator by the name of Nyanaponika Thera. He was interned during the second world war, then became a monk, then became a really accomplished scholar/translator. He wrote this book on the four applications of mindfulness, which he translated as “the four foundations of mindfulness,” and it was he who coined the term “bare attention” as your entry into the practice of the four applications of mindfulness. He never equated mindfulness with bare attention, and when he heard later popularizers of satipatthana doing so, he was quite appalled. Boy, you really missed it, you’ve dumbed it down, you’ve been really reductionist here. He was not pleased at all, and I have this from a direct disciple of his, Bhikkhu Bodhi, who is one of our best modern scholars. Really outstanding, right there at the top. They’re both aware of the tremendous richness of the Buddhist genre of practice called vipashyana, and then that specific modality, that specific set of practices called the satipatthana, or four applications of mindfulness: the richness, the theoretical depth, the sophistication of the methods involved, and the diversity of practices that are applied to all of the four applications of mindfulness. It’s just tremendously rich, and to see all of that reduced to “mindfulness is just bare attention, vipashyana is mindfulness, that’s all there is, now just sit in bare attention and you’ve got the whole thing,” it’s just like how could you? That’s what happens when you popularize. You want to present a practice with a theory that’s accessible and helpful, so there’s nothing wrong with popularizes. But there is something profoundly wrong with popularizing and then saying that’s all there is, there’s just nothing more to it than that. That is just profoundly misleading, and that’s happened a lot in the popularization of vipassana generally, and the four applications of mindfulness in particular.

And then there’s been some imports into this practice also. One that’s become very popular in the modern Vipassana movement is called “Choiceless awareness.” So one might use that label, which has been around for a good 35 or 40 years by now, and one might say well that’s what we were just practicing here. “Choiceless” because we’re not choosing the visual over the auditory, just open to all the five sense fields, and so that’s choiceless awareness. Well, the news is – and I have this from another top scholar who is the editor of the Buddhist publication society in Sri Lanka – that this term “choiceless awareness” is actually not a Buddhist term at all. It’s not found in any Buddhist text or commentary, it’s actually a term coined by and defined by Krishnamurti, who is not a Buddhist, never taught Buddhism. But some of the early popularizers of vipashyana really liked it, and so they just said we’ll take that! And they kind of slipped it in, like, slipping something into your drink! So it’s not a Buddhist practice, never was, and it doesn’t become a Buddhist practice just by saying so. Otherwise, if I like Freud, I could just start taking ideas from Freud and start saying this is Buddhism, just because I like it. We know that’s not legitimate. Krishnamurti is Krishnamurti. He has his own deal going. Let’s respect that for what it is and what it’s not, but what it’s not is Buddhism.

So this is not choiceless awareness. If you want to call this choiceless awareness, you can, but let’s give Krishnamurti his due. Let him do his own trip, which is not a Buddhist trip.

Now with the popularization not only of vipashyana, but also of Dzogchen, you can go for a weekend on Dzogchen and come out thinking I’m a Dzogchen practicioner. You might think what we just did was “open presence.” It was present, and it was open, and so was that Dzogchen? And the answer is 100%, emphatically and very enthusiastically no! That was not Dzogchen. That wasn’t even close. That’s not even in the same ballpark. It’s not in the same continent as Dzogchen. Dzogchen is — in the Nyingma tradition where it’s most strongly preserved, taught, and realized – the ninth yana, the pinnacle of all of the Buddhadharma, starting with the Sravakayana, the glorious foundation; the Pratyeka-buddhayana of solitary realizers, the Bodhisattva-yana, and right on through the various stages of Vajrayana up to Mahayoga, Anu-yoga. And then finally, the pinnacle of pinnacles, the ninth yana, Ati-yoga. So to take the essence of Dzogchen meditation and bring it down to the bottom and say that’s Dzogchen is really quite silly. I’m speaking here not out of my own authority, but I’m drawing very explicitly on the classic Dzogchen literature. There’s no dissent here. There’s a right answer. What is Dzogchen meditation? What’s the term? Rigpa-chokshyak. A nice literal translation would be “let it be.” But it’s not just letting be. It’s rigpa-chokshyak. Rigpa is pristine awareness, it’s Buddha-nature, it’s tathagatagarbha, it’s dharmakaya. It doesn’t get any deeper than that! What this means is that you’ve ascertained rigpa, you are viewing reality from the perspective of rigpa, of a dimension of consciousness beyond time, beyond space, beyond individuation, beyond all conceptual elaboration. It is completely inconceivable. But you’ve broken through to that dimension of consciousness, and you’re actually viewing reality from that perspective. That’s called Trekcho, “break though to primordial purity and pristine awareness.” Once you’ve broken through, and you actually are viewing reality from that perspective, then you just rest. There’s nothing to do. I mean literally, absolutely nothing to do. You’re just being aware, and your awareness is pristine awareness. You’re just being pristinely aware. You are buddha-nature, you are dharmakaya, or in the new translation schools, you are the innate mind of clear light. According to the Dalai Lama, two different terms for the same reality. Innate mind of clear light, rigpa: same! And so having broken through to that, you’re viewing reality from that perspective, and then you just rest with your awareness wide open, doing nothing whatsoever. That’s rigpa-chokshyak. So to now closely paraphrase from Dudjom Lingpa. I will refer to him multiple times over this eight weeks. Nineteenth century grandmaster, thirteen of his disciples achieve rainbow body: I don’t know anybody in recent history who has matched that. And he’s not living in New York City with eight million people around, he’s living out on the nomadic highlands of eastern Tibet. So that’s pretty low population density out there, and to have thirteen disciples achieve rainbow body is quite extraordinary. So there he was, a consummate Dzogchen treasure-revealer, profound realizer, extraordinary teacher. He makes this point, and speaks for the entire tradition, he’s not an iconoclast. He speaks for the entire tradition when he says that Dzogchen meditation, this rigpa-chokshyak, is nothing other than sustaining the view of Dzogchen. That means you must be viewing reality from the perspective of Dzogchen, which is nothing other than viewing reality from the perspective of rigpa. And so that’s all there is to it, but if you don’t have the Dzogchen view, if you’re not viewing reality from that perspective, there is no such thing as Dzogchen meditation. That’s it! Because the meditation is nothing other than breaking through to that way of viewing reality and then just being there. But to compare that with what we just did, where there was no reference to Dzogchen view, no reference to Dzogchen way of life, and then just sitting here. Well! Not the same thing! Let’s just put it that way! And so it is misleading if anyone says that’s Dzogchen. Well, it’s not. I’ll just put it that way.

But now, why did I teach it, to ridicule it? No, there’s nothing wrong with that practice. It’s useful. Bare attention, as this outstanding scholar/practicioner/monk pointed out some 50 years ago or so, really is valid, and that’s why I consider those 24 minutes well spent. What’s the point here?


(36:40) A central theme about this whole 8 weeks, is central for all of vipashyana, central for all the applications of mindfulness, really core, is developing the ability through experience of being able to distinguish “what is reality presenting,” that is what’s immediately arising to all of your 6 fields of awareness, the five sensory and mental, what is manifesting, what is being presented versus what you are superimposing: the labels, the categories, the preferences, the ruminations, the judgments and so forth and so on.

It is not to say that we should not label, that we should never exercise good judgment, that we should never use categories and so forth and so on, that we should never think, consider, reflect, of course we should. Of course we should! But it is also crucial, this is in day to day life, it’s crucial in attending to our own personal reality here in body and mind, attending to the environmental around us, it is crucial in scientific research. It is crucial to distinguish what you are superimposing and what is being presented and not conflate the two, fuse the two, to the point that you can no longer tell the difference. That is crucial.

And moreover the Buddhist premise is that we are engaging in this delusional “con-fusion” — because that is what it is — it is a fusing together. We are engaging in delusional “con-fusion” as our daily bread. We do it all the time every day and it has big disadvantages. It gives rise to an enormous amount of unnecessary suffering.

So everything here in these 8 weeks, while it is going very much into insight, into knowledge, wisdom, direct realization it all has, it is nested, it is embedded in a pragmatic orientation. This is not what drives a lot of science and I say this with respect for science, but what drives a lot of science is sheer curiosity. There is not wrong with that and it is giving rise to a lot of really brilliant discoveries. Fine. That is good. That is not what drives Buddhism. That is not what drove the Buddha. The four noble truths are not about curiosity. The 8-fold noble path, the four applications of mindfulness and so forth, there is something a lot more than curiosity going on. It is fundamentally pragmatic and that is attending to the reality of suffering, the sources of suffering, the possibility of freedom and then following that path. The whole of Buddhadharma is embedded in that framework. Mere curiosity: nothing wrong with it! Not condemning it! But that simply is not the motivation force in Buddhism.

So what we did here, in this quiet awareness, first of all kind of rebooting — I like the image although I do not generally like mind/computer analogies – but this one actually seems to work very well. The practice that we did is just to settle the body, and then the respiration, and then the mind, it comes directly from Padmasambhava’s text, “Natural Liberation,” which I translated years ago under Gyatrul Rinpoche’s guidance and just what he really does, you’re settling the body, then you settle your speech in effortless silence, you’re settling the respiration in a nice smooth flow. And then he says, and you can see it there in the text, he says now just rest your awareness vacantly in space, just evenly in space, and do not attend to anything, do not meditate on anything, do not take anything as an object. And so everything you were doing previously you are shutting down, just like having your computer, having a whole bunch of programs open and then you see the computer is just getting really funky, it’s behaving badly, so if you’re an amateur like me and don’t know much about the inners of a computer, you think that maybe should just reboot and hope for the best. And sometimes that works! Sometimes, if it’s a pretty minor glitch, just shut the whole system down without turning off the electricity, and having shut down all your programs, then they come back on again and lo! And behold! It fills your heart with gladness when you see that the problem has actually vanished just by rebooting.

Well, this is a kind of rebooting, that is we get caught in rumination, we get caught in what I’ve called obsessive compulsive delusional disorder, we get caught in the refractory period (psychological term), getting really uptight, narrow minded, locked into some perspective and so the mind operates in a dysfunctional way and in a quite wide variety of ways.

And this simple task of just shutting down the system, just into the body, into the breath, into the mind, no object, no systems operating, just leaving the light of awareness on but without using it, without directing it, just leaving it there, just being present and then turn on your system and so we turned on the system, that is we directed the awareness in a very simple way, this little light of mine, let it shine through the sensory fields because we are venturing into the close applications of mindfulness to the body as I mentioned before, actually covers the entire physical realm, all the 5 sensory fields. Everything physical is included in that and the body is where we are starting from. So where are you looking from? From the perspective of your own body, so you’re attending to the physical.

And so the idea there was to just get as clean data as you can, that is why it was so simple, be aware discerningly, clearly, knowingly, but as quietly as you can so you’re actually picking up the sounds as sounds, the sights as sights, tactile sensations as tactile sensations, without conflating them or confusing them with all of the categories, labels and so on, objectifications that we superimpose upon appearances.

(42:40) If we draw an analogy with science and I’ll do that repeatedly I’m sure over the coming 8 weeks: you are just trying to get clean data because when you have a system of measurement and you first learning how it works and getting it to work well it is bound to produce a lot of noise, artifacts of the system. And this happens in pretty much all fields of science, cosmology to molecular biology to neuroscience and so forth. When you pick up something you have to wonder if you are not really familiar with your instrument, if you are not totally confident that your system of measurement is operating correctly, when you get some data coming, the good scientist has to ask the question: is this data generated by my system of measurement, in other words internally generated noise, junk, which has no relevance to anything outside the system of measurement, or actually is this information that my system of measurement is getting from something outside of the system of measurement, in other words I’m actually detecting something in reality? That is absolutely crucial.

(43:50) And summing up a good example that Alan mentioned: recent physics research that came to the conclusion that neutrinos could travel faster than light. Later on it was proved that this was not the correct conclusion. The mistake was due to the system of measurement.

(45:00) But now we are back to this contemplative science, or in Sanskrit it’s called Adyatma Vidhya, inner science, inner knowledge, one of the 5 major fields of knowledge of the great Nalanda Tradition, which is preserved more than anywhere else nowadays in the Tibetan tradition, this inner knowledge with knowledge of the mind being at its very core and then as we investigate the mind, then observing, investigating how the mind relates to the rest of phenomena, the role of the mind in nature at large. So it is a science, it’s a natural science from the inside out, we’re starting from the mind, and rather than developing a telescope we are developing our attention skills. That is the shamatha, to get cut down on the noise, the rumination and then we begin to apply it – there we took the first baby step in that session, applying it and just trying to get clean data. As the Buddha said “in the seen let be just the seen” rather than all the junk you put on top of it: like “isn’t that pretty, that is ugly, I do not like that or that, bla, bla, bla,” all the categories we superimpose on stuff and think they are already out there. You know, we conceive them and then we orphan them.

(46:25) We actually project our own reality and say: Who, me? I didn’t do it! And if there are two of us that agree then we know we are right. That is good but that happens often a lot.

So there we are trying to just get clean data. So the Buddha said “in the seen let there be just the seen,” pick up clear data, so that you’re not conflating the noise of your system, the artifacts of your system and that is your memories, your associations, your prejudices, hopes and fears, likes and dislikes, all of that has its place inside the measurement system but don’t conflate with what you are trying to measure! Like other people, situations, environments and so forth and so on. Try to get clean data. It is pretty smart! That is bare attention.

This is your entrance, it is not the middle phase, not the final phase, but it is your entry to getting really good clean data as you closely apply mindfulness to body, to feelings, mental states and phenomena at large. Without getting clean data you can always being second guessing yourself, wandering did I really observe that or that I imagine it? Did I speculate, did I superimpose and so forth and so on. So we’ll just call that entry into, the first step into getting clean data, clear awareness.

And then we can ask, all right now that we are venturing more beyond simply finding an inner peace, beyond the retreat of shamatha. Remember the retreat? When you are practicing shamatha, especially if you really go for it, you are “retreating.” Quite rightfully so. You are losing the battle with samsara, you are getting beat up by surrounding environment, other people, but most intimately getting beat up by your own mental afflictions. You just come out bruised, broken jaw, blacks eyes, and what hit you? It is anger, resentment, craving, jealousy, bleeding from all pores.

So when you are kind losing the battle with your own mental afflictions, losing the battle with samsara, that it’s just stronger than you. As that happens, you may be in certain environments where you feel: I cannot practice here. If I were a arya bodhisattva I could but I am not and therefore I cannot practice here, this is just overwhelming.

On occasion I have been in such environments, where I know my limitations, but I know: I need to get out because I cannot flourish in this environment because it is strong than I am and it is bringing out all the rubbish in me and I do not have strong enough defenses to protect myself from this environment. So what would you do? You retreat. You retreat like a really smart military general that says: my forces are meeting overwhelming forces so if I stay out there they’re going to get all wiped out, so what to do? Advance to the rear! It’s called retreat. It is called retreat, retreat quickly and do not throw away your weapons! That is called a rout. A rout is getting drunk. That is also retreat from reality but that is throwing away all your weapons, snorting cocaine, ecstasy and so forth. That is a rout. You cannot handle reality so why don’t you just dope yourself up, as many, many people are doing nowadays. They find reality quite intolerable, so let’s just throw away our weapons of intelligence and mindfulness and so forth, throw them into the air and just say yes. That is a rout.

(50:20) But shamatha is not a rout, shamatha is a retreat, a really smart retreat. Why in the military do people go into retreat? Because they are facing overwhelming odds and moreover maybe they are running out of supplies or out of ammunition and so forth, maybe they are in a bad area, maybe they are at a disadvantage, the enemy is shooting downhill at them and they’re just sitting ducks.

So what you do? You retreat! And bring weapons with you and then you get a good meal, you replenish your supplies, your ammunition and so forth. You re-strategize and then you think: ok, what is the strategy? To go back and to fight another day and eventually win the battle.

Shamatha is a retreat. That is really what it is, you go into shamatha retreat and that is you disengage from other people, disengage from the activities in the world, you simplify your life down to the bare minimum and then you retreat from the sensory fields, into maybe the tactile sensations of the breath, or you retreat into the mind or you do the deepest retreat right into awareness itself not even attending to, not even venturing out into your mind, let alone your body, let alone the surrounding environment. You’ve gone into this real deep cubby hole like: “I am just staying here, the sheer luminosity and cognizance of my own awareness and I am staying here and world take a hike, I am recuperating here, this little light of mine, awareness, and just rest.” That is really retreat. So it can be very useful.

(51:48) But we in these 8 weeks we are doing more than retreat, we are venturing into the “expedition.” These are the two terms I really like. Retreat you know can be really very smart but then once you’ve retreated, regrouped, re-strategize and you are ready to venture out into the world then it’s expedition time, like a military expedition, expedition to go to the north pole, go to someplace you’ve never been before. But again the etymology is really great, because expedition means, “ex” you’re getting out, your “ped” your feet from where they’ve been stuck. “Expedition” means getting out of ruts, getting out of old habits, extricating your feet from where they have been stuck. That’s an expedition.

Boy! Vipashyana is just 100% expedition. There is no retreat involved. You are not withdrawing from any reality at all. The field of your attention is the whole of reality and we’ll methodically go through it to the physical, to the affective, to the mental and the whole pratityasamutpada, the dependent origination, all of these facets of reality and see how they arise, arise in codependent origination. But vipashyana is not retreat. Vipashyana is an expedition to attend to reality or to engage with reality but in ways in which we do not fall back into our old ruts. So it is an expedition, right?

So you may wander, well who is qualified? If you enter the military, especially the special forces, the ones that don’t just draft you, they’ll be giving you a checkup, medical checkup, especially if it’s the Navy SEALS, Green Berets, what have you. They’ll want to know you’re made of the right stuff. Want to be an Air Force pilot? Right stuff or not?

So who has the right stuff, what are the qualifications? What gives you the right stuff to venture out into the expedition, venturing onto the Buddha’s path to liberation and for example by way of “The Four Applications of Mindfulness”?

Well Aryadeva, one of the great pandits, scholars, contemplatives of the whole Indian Buddhist Tradition, disciple of Nagarjuna, in his text “The Four Hundred Versus”, he just pinpoints exactly what is necessary and to pass the entrance exam, to be qualified, it means you are ready, you are suitable for the training. Just three qualities:

  • You must be perceptive.

It is not a matter of how high your IQ is but you better be really paying attention. If you are not paying attention, if you are not being perceptive, if you are not really interested in reality, you are just kind of doping out, stoning out, whatever. Sorry, you are Four F. Four F in the American Military means you don’t get in. So you must be perceptive, attentive, interested, and engaged.

  • You must be open-minded.

Free of precedents, free of bias, you must be un-biased, you must be – in the scientific sense of the term — objective and that is being open to whatever reality dishes up whether or not it accords with your assumptions, your beliefs, your preconceptions and that is a tough one! It is really tough to really be open-minded.

Of course it’s ever so easy to open-mindedly be critical of other people’s assumptions. That’s really easy. Just have people start talking and you say: I disagree with you on this point and you are wrong on that one, and you’re definitely wrong on this point and that point. As for me, my beliefs are all fine! This is really easy to do; it’s really easy to do. Open-mindedly critical and prejudicial with regards to everybody else beliefs especially when they are different from my own. That happens unfortunately a lot in science, happens regularly in religion, it is all too common in philosophy and politics. Ha Ha! It is the kiss of death to all of them.

If our assumptions were so good then we should be a lot happier than we are right now. If our way of viewing reality is completely authentic and in no need any correction, any reassessment, we should already be fully awake, Buddhas, we should be free of suffering.

So if we are still suffering, if our minds are still cluttered with mental afflictions, then that would imply that we may be holding some beliefs and assumptions, but more importantly, we may be viewing reality in some ways that are simply delusional.

And then we can ask: am I 100% deluded? No I don’t think anybody, not even a schizophrenic, is 100% delusional. You’re getting most of it wrong. So no, we can’t just say my mind is totally broken, please give a new one, this one’s worn out. Then we may have to see: Ok, within my mind, the ways I view reality, myself, other people, the environment, which aspects of the ways I view reality do not stand up to critical analyses, that proved themselves to be faulty, not based in reality, just speculation or false assumptions?

And so there it is, there is a core theme, be open minded and be — above all — be willing to reassess even your most cherished assumptions, even assumptions you’d bet your life one. Be willing to reassess. If you’re not, so sorry you are not qualified and go off and follow some other tradition, but you are really not suitable for this path.

  • You must really have a passion.

You must really have a passion, a great longing, a commitment to put the teachings into practice. If one only wants to listen to them and think about them and then write papers and essays and maybe get a degree, that’s fine! You get a university degree and perhaps get a university job, but you’re not qualified to follow the Buddha’s path. Because following the Buddha’s path means you hear, you understand, you test and then when you see that a certain practice is authentic, then you put it into practice, you apply it. You are an applied scientist and not just a theoretical scientist and your science is a science of your own life in relationship to the world around you.

So there is, just those three qualities, perceptive, open-minded and with a great passion to practice. Well I do have some scientific background, and if you’re venturing into biology, astronomy, physics, whatever it may be, that seems like a pretty good set of criteria for any branch of science, right? You must be perceptive, you must be open-minded and you must really want to practice science and not just think about science.

His Holiness Dalai Lama has being emphasizing a lot over the years now, including in his wonderful book, The Universe in a Single Atom, that within the domain of Buddhism there is really a very powerful “Mind Science.”

I don’t think he says and I would not say all of Buddhism simply is a Mind Science, but in it there are elements that are clearly scientific and they are driven by, focus on the nature of the mind and foundational to this whole vipashyana, this contemplative science, this science of the mind is: “The Four Applications of Mindfulness”. (59:15)

Buddha’s quoted from the Satipatthana Sutra.

(1:06:40) Here’s simply a quote from the Sutra. Buddha referring to the four applications of mindfulness says: “this is the direct path, monks, for the purification of beings”. Alright so there are many, many practices that can provide you with some really nice scenic routes, going here and there and wandering around and doing some very interesting things and so forth, that could eventually lead you to liberation. And then there’s the Autobahn, the one that just doesn’t go anywhere else. It’s from Hamburg to Frankfurt, it doesn’t go anywhere else. Get on the autobahn, stay there in the fast lane, you’ll be in Frankfurt before you know it! Because it doesn’t go anywhere else, right? Pedal to the metal, get in your Maserati, get in the fast lane, put on your blinker, get out of my way! This is the direct path. It’s the fast lane on the autobahn. That’s what this direct path is: to liberation. “This is the direct path, monks, for the purification of beings.” Ok so the first thing he says is pragmatic. Purification of what? Purification, of course, like a doctor looking at his patient, take this medicine, this will purify your system, this will detoxify your system, this will remove the harmful viruses, bacteria and so forth. This will purify. This will heal. For the “healing” of beings, for the “purification” of beings.

Purifying what? The klesha avarana: the afflictions of the mind. “For the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation.” In other words by purifying, by dispelling, by healing the underlying causes of suffering, which lie in the human mind, you thereby overcome sorrow and lamentation. “For overcoming pain and grief.” In other words even your experience of pain, physical pain in the body, it shouldn’t go away, it shouldn’t vanish as if you’ve had a general anesthesia, why you’re walking and so forth putting your hand on the fire and not hurting. Of course that should hurt! That is your body sending you a signal. But overcoming pain and grief in a way that your experience of even physical suffering is radically transformed. This is the direct path for reaching the authentic path, this is the direct route to reaching the authentic path, one that actually works, one that is a path from here to there, from suffering and the causes of suffering to liberation, the cessation of suffering and its causes. This is authentic, it is true, it is real, this is the direct path for the realization of nirvana.

This is for the total purification, the total liberation of the mind from all afflictive obscurations. And what is this direct path? Namely, it is “The Four Applications of Mindfulness”. It is a very simple statement. There it is.

The hidden meaning is there. Not very deeply hidden, but one needs to know where to look. It’s not so obvious. I’d say our modern society is in a pre-contemplative phase. As scientists or modern historians so often speak of a pre-scientific era before Galileo and Copernicus, when we were basically muddling about in the dark, in the Dark Ages. Not having awoken to the fact that if you want to understand the physical world, the objective world, the quantitative world, you should look at it really closely, which is what Galileo did both in terms of astronomy as well as terrestrial physics. He, like nobody else before him including Aristotle, he developed the technology and applied it, he made the precise measurements, he had hypotheses. He was the first full scientist, because he had all the trappings of what it means to be a scientist in the modern world. And until he started that, we’d say do you have astrology? Yes, they’d had centuries of astrology. And very good astrology! They could predict solar and lunar eclipses, they knew a lot about the stars. The one thing they didn’t do was develop any very sophisticated means for actually observing celestial events, and that’s what Galileo did. It’s called a telescope. From his eight-powered telescope up to the Hubble and the newer versions that are coming out right now, all of that is about the core of the scientific method of making the most rigorous, sophisticated, replicable observations of the phenomena under investigation that you possibly can. That is the essence of scientific method. And that’s exactly what modern cognitive scientists don’t do when it comes to the mind. Don’t even get close, don’t even try! And that is, making rigorous, replicable, sophisticated, precise observations of mental phenomena. Not the brain correlates, and not the behavioral expressions. Williams James said, about 110 years ago, when it comes to psychology, it’s like astronomy prior to Galileo. In other words, like astrology. Astrology was very good at studying the correlates of celestial bodies, but not much good at actually observing. Not with precision. Folk astronomy, just using the naked eye. And that’s where we are, folk psychology, when it comes to the direct observation of mental events.

But the statement there is so deep. There’s an implication here that’s just totally against the grain of the last 400 years of Eurocentric civilization, and it’s built in, it’s core to multiple contemplative traditions, it’s almost universally known among contemplative traditions and almost entirely unknown in the scientific tradition. And that is that in order to realize, let’s say Anatman, Non-Self, in order to realize that – and by “realize” I mean in order to know it immediately, directly, to drink it in, to totally get it experientially, not just figure it out conceptually in order to write a paper on it but actually to taste it, to immerse your mind in it, to directly realize it – in order for that to take place, you have to be more than just smart. You actually have to have cultivated a mind that’s prepared, that is tuned, that is honed and purified to be able to access that truth and drench itself in it. In other words, it’s not just about being smart. There are a lot of very good scholars who have written very smart essays about anatta without it ever touching home at all. It’s like they’re rhinoceri, you know the little mosquito of their conceptual understanding doesn’t even penetrate the skin. It has no impact on one’s way of life. And this is not only for western scholars, there are Buddhist scholars who can crush everybody in debate, and yet it never gets in. It never actually penetrates. They can give the greatest dharma talk and it never gets inside. Why? Because the mind itself has not been prepared to receive that truth, so you get it only on the most superficial level of articulation, conceptualization, being really smart and clever. That’s all very well, but does it purify the mind of mental afflictions? Doesn’t even touch them, doesn’t even get close.

So the direct preparation for the vipashyana, to be able to really gain access to these truths, to realize them so that they radically and even irreversibly transform the mind that knows them – and that’s the core of this authentic path, that knowing these aspects of reality radically and irreversibly transforms and purifies the mind that has gained such knowledge – for that to take place, you can’t bring an ordinary mind and expect for that to be sufficient. It’s not. That mind has to be trained and purified by shamatha, by samadhi. The mind that you bring to that must be exceptionally sane. “Samadhi” means unified, it means coherent, it means composed, it means balanced. That’s conative, attentional, cognitive, and affective. You must bring a resplendently sane mind to your vipashyana practice so that when you do penetrate to these deep aspects of reality such as an-atman (non-self) your mind drinks it in and that realization goes right down to your marrow. It goes down into the very core of your being so that you can never view reality in a contrary way ever again. It’s gone so deep that it’s actually your way of viewing reality and now non-reality is impotent to knock you out. It has no power, because you’re rooted in an authentic way of viewing reality, of an-atman. That’s not going to happen unless the mind you bring to vipashyana is deeply trained in samadhi and the Buddha specifically said in this regard and I have to quote this one again. It’s important. And it’s just nowhere to be found in modern western civilization and it’s hardly to be found anywhere on the planet these days.

As His Holiness commented, just in a conversation a few days ago, he said any good Buddhist scholar knows that shamatha/vipashyana is the core of any Buddhist meditation. And you don’t need to be a brilliant scholar. It all boils down to shamatha/vipashyana, it’s pan-Buddhist. And His Holiness commented that very few people are practicing! Very few! A few yes, but very few! How bizarre! What part of that was unclear? What part of shamatha/vipashyana didn’t you understand? You get carried up doing all these other kinds of practices and then skip the heart? So if anybody can ferret out, seek out and lure the really accomplished shamatha practicioners and the really accomplished vipashyana practitioners it will only be one man, I think. I don’t know anybody else who has his authority.

So where is that quote? There! Here’s a direct statement from the Buddha. “So long as these five obscurations are not abandoned.” What are the 5 obscurations that make your mind unsuitable so that even if you get some insight by way of vipashyana it will not stick, it will not transform, it will not liberate, because your mind is screwed up, it’s obscure, it’s dysfunctional? What are the 5 obscurations that obscure the luminous and pure nature of your own awareness? Five! Sensual craving, and that’s your addiction to all hedonic pleasure. Malice or ill-will. Laxity and dullness. Excitation and anxiety. And then afflictive uncertainty. Those are the 5 obscurations, sometimes called the 5 hindrances. And the Buddha said: “As long as these five obscurations are not abandoned, one considers oneself as indebted.” So just imagine this: you’re deep in debt. Some of you might find that quite easy. “One considers oneself as indebted,” but now not only you’re in debt but “sick”, not only sick, but you’re “in bonds” so you’re in chains. You’re not only in chains, you’re “enslaved” and you’re “lost in a desert track.” Have a nice day! And enjoy your vipashyana practice, it’s bound to turn out well! That’s really heady terminology. He always chose his words very carefully. But insofar as your mind is encumbered by, obscured, afflicted, toxified by these 5 obscurations, consider yourself indebted, sick, in bonds, enslaved and lost in a desert track!

Well, you don’t need samadhi to be a really good scientist, because the technology is free of the 5 obscurations. Your X-ray, your electron microscope, your fMRI, they don’t have any of the 5 obscurations so they can get nice clean data. The one thing they can’t get any clean data on at all is your mind, because your mind and everything that takes place in the mind is invisible to all instruments of scientific technology. So it’s good for all the physical stuff and it’s completely blind to all the stuff that happens in your mind. The only access that you have to your mind, and if your mind is encumbered by those 5 obscurations, you are 5 things down the tubes.

So therefore, samadhi is not optional, it is a prerequisite for the wisdom teachings to really have the power of liberating, transforming, alleviating the causes of suffering. So there it is: samadhi, so often overlooked, ridiculously overlooked. And there is the Buddha himself saying this. You want to debate with the Buddha? Have a nice day with that one. But samadhi is absolutely a prerequisite. But then if you want to develop samadhi, you’d better to look to its foundation, which is ethics. Avoiding the unwholesome, following the wholesome, living a non-violent way of life, a benevolent way of life, and then fine-tuning that so that your whole way of life is just saturated by a discerning mindfulness of recognizing what is wholesome, what is not wholesome, what is conducive to one’s own flourishing or genuine happiness, and what is counterproductive, destructive of genuine happiness. But this means you have to just totally have a radical makeover of your whole way of life. It’s just a fundamental shift, a radical re-orientation towards a profoundly, essentially, and pervasively ethical way of life. And if you don’t, you’ll never develop samadhi. It’s not like you shouldn’t, you just won’t be able to. Because one can also define an unethical way of life as that which makes it impossible to develop samadhi. It will erode it. Your sensual craving, hostility, then 10 non-virtues. All of those would be like just putting bombs under your cultivation of samadhi, it’ll just fall apart. And you’ll go back to retreat and it’ll fall apart. Go back, fall apart.

So here is a science, a contemplative science, or an inner science, where ethics is not an add-on. Ethics is added on to science. Human subjects, criteria, how can you treat your subjects, human and non-human, what constitutes cruelty: there are a lot of regulations there. They are add-ons. They weren’t even there 50, 60 years ago. Psychology got away with all kinds of stuff. But then you know they added on, so that’s good. But it’s an add-on, right? You don’t have to be all that ethical to be a brilliant scientist. You certainly don’t have to be humble, and you certainly don’t have to have samadhi. So they have an enormous amount of knowledge in the other branches of science, but it doesn’t take ethics, and it doesn’t take samadhi, and it doesn’t transform radically the mind that gains the insights.

This is an inner science, adyatma-vidhya, an inner science, and ethics is not an add-on, the ethics is absolutely from its core. Indispensible. Because you’ll never develop samadhi without it, and without samadhi, the vipashyana that truly liberates will never manifest. So it makes it an exceptional science where virtue is actually part of the scientific process. Virtue is indispensible for gaining knowledge that liberates. It’s not just being nice. It’s core. It’s essential. So the pursuit of genuine happiness, the pursuit of truth, the pursuit of virtue are all bound up together like a braid with three strands. You can’t take them apart. It you take apart away, the other two unravel. They’re no longer there. So it’s an extraordinary science. It’s not unique to Buddhism. There are other traditions where there’s also the three strands. It’s simply very clear in Buddhism.

So there it is. Just a little introduction to the relationship between shamatha and vipashyana. And of all the traditions, and I am a comparative scholar, I don’t know of any other tradition that so lends itself to entry simply with the three qualities of being perceptive, having an open mind, and having a passionate yearning to practice. Do you have to believe in reincarnation? Do you have to believe in your guru, that your guru’s a Buddha? Do you have to believe the Buddha was omniscient? Do you have to believe in karma? The six realms of existence? How about Mount Meru? Do you really have to believe in that or not? And the answer is: how many ways do you want us to say “be perceptive, open-minded and have a passionate wish to practice and that’s enough.”

Transcribed by Rafael Carlos Giusti

Revised by James French

Final edition by Alma Ayon


Ask questions about this lecture on the Buddhism Stack Exchange or the Students of Alan Wallace Facebook Group. Please include this lecture’s URL when you post.