Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Buddhism and Motivation

Businesses, behavioral scientists, educators, and religious leaders spend a lot of time, effort, and money trying to understand and control human motivation. What makes people behave the way we do? Why do we so often engage in counterproductive, even destructive, behavior? How can we help people, ourselves and others, behave in ways that are safer, smarter, and more productive? I believe that Buddhism offers insight to the problem, and more importantly, offers an effective and self directed practice to change motivation for the better.

First, there are two basic Buddhist terms related to motivation.

One of these is cetana 思; which is translated variously as intention, motive, aim, or volitional impulse. It's meaning is similar to that of the English word conation.  For what it's worth, I think cetana is considered a mental factor (cetasika or caitta 心所有法). The Buddha is quoted as saying, "Cetanaham bhikkhave kammam vadami ..." (O Monks, what I call karma is motive; ...). This is followed by "cetayitva kammam karoti kayena vacaya manasa" (Having made a decision / choice, one creates karma by bodily deeds, spoken words, and mental ideas).

In other words, we create Karma in three ways; through intentional or motivated deeds, speech, and plans. The moral quality of karma is determined by the moral quality of the cetana or motive behind the acts, words, and ideas. In very simple terms, constructive motives yield karmic merit and / or lead to emancipation from suffering, while counterproductive motives yield karmic demerits and bind us further to suffering.

The other term is sankhara (samskara 行), as used in the context of the fourth aggregate, that of volitional conditioning (sankhara khanda, samskara-skandha 行蘊). Our volitional conditioning, much of which is unconscious or semi-conscious, constructs our thoughts, words, and deeds. In order to change our karma for the better, we must recondition our minds, by exchanging counterproductive motives for constructive motives.

The practice to recondition the mind is the 6th branch of the Noble Eightfold Path; Correct Effort (samma vayama, samyag vyayama, 正精進). Note that vyayama also means physical exercises or drills. Also, Correct Effort is explained in detail as the Fourfold Correct Struggle (cattaro samma padhana, catur samyak-pradhana, 四正勤); which is a kind of exercise for the mind. It consists of (1) blocking and (2) letting go of counterproductive motives, emotions, attitudes, and so on; while (3) cultivating and (4) maintaining constructive motives, emotions, and mental attitudes.

  1. Restraint (samvara-padhana): In practice, the struggle to stop counterproductive motives before they arise. Samvara 三跋羅 is also translated as blocking, suppression, obstruction, hindrance, warding off.
  2. Let go (pahana-padhana 断勤): In practice, the struggle to let go of counterproductive motives that have already arisen. Pahana 斷 is also translated as abandonment, cutting off, severance, destroying, ending, elimination, stopping.
  3. Cultivation (bhavana padhana 修勤). In practice, the struggle to cultivate constructive motives that have not yet arisen. Bhavana 修 修行 is also translated as development, nurturing, training, education, producing, stimulation.
  4. Maintaining (anurakkhana padhana 隨護斷): In practice, the struggle to maintain constructive motives after they have arisen. Anurakkhana is also translated as guarding, protecting, preservation,

The suttas, sutras, and various commentaries and manuals have a number of lists of both counterproductive mental states that should be avoided, as well constructive mental states that should be cultivated and maintained. It is up to us to observe our minds and figure out it out. For Nichiren Buddhists, the Mandala Gohonzon can help us by serving as a mirror of our consciousness. The various lists can help sort out what we are seeing, and what to do about it. I shall explore that more in a future blog.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Authentic Spiritual Cultivation / Overcoming the 7 Deadly Sins

If you do not like the word spiritual simply substitute mental, or even psychological. If the word cultivation bothers you; then use training, education, or development instead. The original words are transliterated as  citta bhavana. Citta is the past participle of cit; which means to think. The suffix -ta  performs roughly the same function as -ed in English. So citta, in general,  means thought; as in the stream of human thought. This can include all of our conscious and unconscious mental states; our ideas, emotions, moods, desires, motives, and so on. I would say even physical sensations could be included.

Bhavana is the word bhava plus the suffix -na. If I understand correctly, bhava is derived from the verb bhu; which roughly means to become, plus va;  meaning wind, blow, direct, or move. In Buddhism bhava can mean the formation of new patterns of thoughts and other behaviors. The suffix -na is evidently a cognate of -ing. In Sanskrit and related languages, it is often used to form gerunds,  or a verb used as a noun, to indicate as state of being.. When used this way, -na often becomes -ion (tion, sion, cion) or -ment in English.  Bhavana implies a directed process of change toward a desirable goal. 

The entire Eightfold Path of Buddhism consists of means toward Spiritual Cultivation. The first two steps consist of adopting the correct view of life, and then developing a meaningful plan of action to achieve suitable goals based on a correct view. The initial  correct view is that bad causes lead to misery, while good causes lead to happy endings in life. The correct plan of action is, then, to try to make sure we are making good causes. It is not easy, and the details can seem complex at times, but is really is that simple. The ultimate correct view is expressed by the Four Noble Truths. The ultimate goal is freedom from suffering; which requires spiritual insight. . 

The next three steps of the past consist changing our speech and actions; which are two of the three ways we make the causes that determine the various outcomes in our lives. In Buddhism, bad speech  and actions are grouped  in various categories from major to minor; somewhat similar to the Roman Catholic concept of venial and deadly sins.  Naturally, we should try to practice polite speech and avoid saying things that harm others or incite bad behavior. We should also refrain from bodily misconduct. Part of the latter consists of trying to earn and honest living. 

The Catholic Church lists seven especially deadly sins. My own version would be rage, materialistic greed, laziness, arrogance, lust, envy, and rapacity. Wrath, avarice or cupidity,  sloth, conceit,  libido, jealousy, and gluttony would work just as well. Note that these are not words or actions; rather they are mental states; such as emotions, motives, desires, thoughts, and feelings; the qualities that tend to motivate harmful speech and actions. Buddhism has a rather similar concept called mental / spiritual / psychological afflictions called  kleshas. These are usually reduced to three general kinds; those of anger, the greedy, and those of mental confusion. If we can somehow get rid of, transform, or otherwise fix these; then we go a long way toward reforming human behavior.

Thus, we come to the the last three steps of the Eightfold Path. Collectively, these three are sometimes called the Training or Aggregate of Concentration. The word concentration here is a translation of the Indic word samadhi. That consists of the prefix sam-, meaning with, together with, or same; the connector a meaning to or toward, and the verb dhi; meaning to hold. maintain, or stabilize.

Before one even gets to each of the lasst three steps, there is usually something called preliminary concentration or parikarma samadhi. The suffix pari- is a cognate of peri-. meaning about or around,.as in peripheral or perimeter. Karma means work. This is some work we might need to do in order to get ready the figurative heavier lifting of advanced concentration. At this stage, we are sort of 'circling around' concentration, looking  for a place to land. In Buddhism, this usually consists of purification rites, devotional practices, and prayers for favors or blessings. Some get stuck here. That can leads to undesirable results, such as conflicts between devotees of rival sects. Moreover, praying for favors can foster greed and lust.  

If and when one advances, the same rituals become less about devotion, and more about cultivation of one's mind and heart. At this point, we have already reached the sixth step of Right Exercise or samma vayama. . The exercise here is a mental one. It consists of overcoming mental afflictions and replacing them with wholesome mental states that serve as antidotes. This is also called the fourfold struggle or cattarro padhana 四正勤.. The struggle is to (1). block and  (2) let go of a specific affliction; while (3) arousing and (4) maintaining its equal and opposite wholesome state. When devotional practices are used; the object(s) of devotion comes to embody the wholesome state one wishes to cultivate. We might come seeking compassion for oneself, and leave with more tolerance for others.  Here are the antidotes for the Seven Deadly Sins 

  • Rage, fury, wrath: This is one of the hatred/anger afflictions. It can be overcome passively by cultivating tolerance; or affirmatively by cultivating kindness and compassion. 
  • Materialistic greed, avarice, cupidity: This is overcome passively by cultivating renunciation, or affirmatively, by cultivating generosity. 
  • Laziness, sloth, boredom.  One note here. While the other 6 have a negative moral valence; laziness is neutral. It is overcome by cultivating enthusiasm,  devotional faith, or diligent effort; which are also morally neutral. 
  • Arrogance, conceit, pride: This is countered by cultivating gratitude, humility, and penitence.. . 
  • Lust: While there is some danger; the best antidote is a sublimation into wholesome affection or kindness. If that is not possible,  renunciation should be cultivated.     
  • Envy, jealousy:  The cure for this is shared joy, rooted in empathy. The Buddhist word for the opposite of envy is mudita; which means to feel happy for the good fortune of others.
 Yes, there are two more steps beyond this. From what I gather, through Right Exercise we can develop the qualities needed to attain heaven, but not to attain complete Enlightenment. Still, I think that it is a good idea to develop a strong moral compass before moving on. Briefly, the seventh step, Right Mindfulness or samyak smriti, develops our powers of observation (passana) or moment-to-moment concentration (khanika samadhi). This is a useful skill in daily life and also leads to the ultimate goal of spiritual insight (vipassana). The eighth step is called contemplation / absorption (dhyana) which leads to fixed concentration (appana samadhi) and mental tranquility (samatha). This helps develop latent intelligence (prajna), but can also lead to absent mindedness  or "spaciness."  Unless one has a suitable retreat where one can safely 'enter' prolonged trance like absorption states, dhyana should be balanced with mindfulness. One other thing, in between preliminary and either moment-to-moment or fixed concentration, there is an unsettling intermediate state called neighborhood concentration (upachara samadhi).    .    

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Is Buddhist Meditation Over Our Heads?

There is a tendency to think of Buddhist meditation as some kind of  lofty mental state well beyond the capacity of common worldlings like ourselves.    If so, it is really not of much use.   My thought, right now, is that it is what it is, and is laid out rather clearly in the sixth, seventh, and eighth steps of the noble eightfold path.   Anyone can do it.   All we have to do is follow the instructions, exert some effort,  be patient, and see for ourselves.

The sixth step of the path is right effort, also known as cultivation meditation or the fourfold struggle.   The struggle is simple enough to understand,  but not so easy to win.  The goal is to block and let go of unhealthy mental states, such as harmful emotions and cynical thinking; while cultivating and maintaining healthy emotions and thought processes.

The negative mental states we wish to purge can be reduced to three groupings:  those related to greed, lust,  or attachment; those related to hatred, anger, or enmity; and those related to ignorance, stupidity, or superstition.   More importantly, we want to awaken and keep up the opposite positive mental states; such as self restraint, kindness, and discernment.

The most common kind of cultivation meditations are kindness and/or compassion meditation.  This involves the development of four mental states figuratively called the divine palaces or abodes of g-d.   There are effective guided meditations to help us develop these, such as the three or four kinds of people meditation.   Another one involves radiating benevolent ‘vibes’ outwardly in the ten directions.   Devotional religious practice can also be viewed as a kind of cultivation meditation.

The seventh step of the eightfold path,  right mindfulness,  is about increasing our sensitivity and powers of observation.  This is variously known as mindfulness, object-less, or insight meditation.  Also, spiritual introspection, open presence, or spiritual purification.  Another name is moment-to-moment concentration.   The most basic method is called the four frames of mindfulness. A more advanced form of this involves observing the arising and falling away of  the five aggregates of clinging. Another way is contemplating the three characteristics of existence. Certain kinds of mandala visualization can also be used. 

Mindfulness meditation has many benefits.   The mind becomes supple land fluid;  able to move from object to object without attaching to anything.   As such, it develops a kind of ‘big picture’  heightened  and expansive spatial awareness.   This can make us more sensitive to and considerate of others.   It can also enhance the  various kinds of motor and visuospatial skills.  More importantly,  it gradually awakens our innate insight.   This process involves overcoming the four distortions and awakening the four innate virtues.
The eighth step,  right concentration or absorption, is about increasing our academic intelligence, by developing our powers of inwardly focused and fixed concentration.  This is sometimes called the calm abiding or  tranquility meditation, because it involves stilling and controlling mental processes.  It is also called object meditation,  since we focus our attention on a single object.   Another name is absorption, because sensory input is tuned out.  It is also known simply by the somewhat misleading  label  ‘concentration meditation’ or rather inappropriately as ‘trance meditation.’

Fixed concentration meditation involves overcoming five general kinds of mental hindrances and replacing them with the five factors of absorption.   This starts with preliminary concentration. As absorption is approached, we enter something called neighborhood or access concentration.   At this level, the mind is still focused on gross material or concrete form.   Then, at some point we enter into an absorbed state in which contact via the external sensory organs is suspended.

Absorption itself can be divided into 3 levels or stages.   The first is called fine material or form absorption.  At this level, we are imaging forms in our mind, like a dream we are controlling.    For example, we can picture an apple and even imagine its texture, aroma,  flavor,  or the crunchy sound produced when we cut or bite into an apple; even though no physical apple is  present.  The next level is even more abstract.   Here, our attention is focused on concepts or ideas rather than forms.   This is called immaterial or formless absorption.   Each of these has four sub-levels, so there are 8 absorptions. in all Finally, there is another, a  non-conceptual ninth absorption, called cessation.

We should keep in mind that all eight steps of the eight-fold path are parts of a whole praxis. Also Cultivation, mindfulness, and fixed concentration meditations all work together  as a unit.  They three make up the second of the threefold training,  that of meditative mental development.   Cultivation ties back to the first training;  that of ethics;  which includes the third, fourth, and fifth steps. Mindfulness and concentration lead to the third training of discernment; which includes steps one and two.

Right effort, developing healthy desires, emotions,  and thought processes is a prerequisite to the wholesome application of the skills acquired  and developed via mindfulness, or moment-to-moment  concentration, and fixed concentration.   However,  I sometimes  wonder  why the Buddha put fixed concentration last,  since the former, in my view, leads  directly to insight.   I suspect this is because he wanted his disciples to first ground themselves, with a solid presence of mind in the world,  before venturing into the fine material and immaterial realms.   Fixed concentration develops important intellectual skills, it makes us more intelligent.  However, by itself, it can lead to ‘spaciness’ and excessive aloofness from the demands of everyday life.

Anyway, this is my take right now,  but I am not attached to it, and I reserve the right to contradict myself later, if I only had a self.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Nightfall on the River


Kankakee River at Momence -- North River Road

Friday, February 26, 2010

Access Concentration; Creepy, Dizzy, Deja-vu Sensation?

I am not even sure what to call this. Is is not a sensation. It is not a feeling; neither in the sense of textile sense; nor in the sense of a complex emotion. It is something I occasionally experienced when I first started chanting; and that has returned recently. By recent, I mean during the last decade. In the past, it would happen maybe ten to fifteen minutes into chanting Daimoku; in front of the Nichiren Shoshu Mandala Gohonzon. I was told this was the 'garden hose' effect;' my bad karma was arising, so I could expiate it. Since expiate is not a common word, I did not know not what it meant back then. I thought it was maybe something like a spiritual fart. Anyway, the creepy, dizzy, deja-vu sensation has come back, since I have been learning to do absorption meditations.

As an aside, I personally have a medical condition that causes two of the three kinds of dizziness; vertigo and disequilibrium. The third kind is syncope or fainting. I have never really experienced spontaneous fainting; but know how to induce it and am familiar. The dizziness is not syncope. Its not vertigo either; which is a spinning sensation. That leaves disequilibrium; which does sort of fit. Disequilibrium is a loss of balance; of equilibrioreception. The floor might look lower or higher than it is. A room might seem to rock. Most people have something experienced this to some degree. Some common situations include:

  • Boarding and exiting an escalator, especially the reverse ones, or a moving walkway.
  • On a elevator, just as it starts and stops. For me, this is more pronounced going up, and especially just before it stops at a floor.
  • While you are sitting in a parked vehicle, with attention focused on the interior, another and another car that has been parked, especially one in an adjacent slot, starts to move. and you catch it in your peripheral field of vision. The car in which your sitting 'feels' like it is moving, even though it remains stationary. I avoid this by keeping my attention on objects outside the vehicle.

The elevator disequilibrium kind of fits what I sometimes experience during attempts at concentration meditation, as well as highly focused chanting. The experience is usually preceded by an odd feeling of having been exactly here before, like I am doing the exact same something I have done before, except that would be impossible. Then there is a creepy, gloomy, horrid feeling a dread. Next comes the disequilibrium, followed by a peculiar buzzing sensation that races randomly through my body. Sometimes my stomach will churn a bit; like serious 'butterflies.' There might be an odd odor; like burning wires or rubber. Yes, I have obviously discussed this with my Doctors; since I thought it might be related to my vestibular disease. It probably is not. If I attempt to either focus or relax my way through vertigo, it gets worse. The only solution for that is to cease movement as much as possible, and reduce sensory input.

The creepy, dizzy, deja-vu sensation is different. I have been advised by one person to just to let it ago and sort of figuratively dive into the gathering gloom. He says the solution to every problem is just on the other side. I am not there yet. My solution has been to just observe it. A few times, I have to stop the meditation. Most of the time, if I just observe the gloom, it goes away and something good, something interesting follows. 'Back in the day,' it was followed by the 3-D glowing Mandala Gohonzon phenomena, something that a number of Nichiren Buddhists have reported experiencing. That, in turn, was followed by a bliss that faded into a calm state of poise.

I shall go more into the possible resolution in a future post. The resolution might be kind of like the queasy sinking feeling in my gut when an 'up' elevator stops at a floor, and settles into place, before the door slides open. Good things seem to be on the other side of the door; it is , perhaps, matter of not getting lost in the mental fog.

I posted about this experience at as group last summer. Someone sent me a private e-mail to a box that I often neglect to check. I think I read it a few months later. Just the other day, I was going through that box, and came across the letter. Right after that, I started having this again, when I 'sit.' I thought it might be a good segue back into a discussion of Access Concentration.

These disturbing experiences seem to occur during a transition from Preliminary to Access Concentration, I wonder if these are similar in any way to what Zen calls the Mara Realm 魔境 {makyo)? Or the 7th of the three obstacles and 4 devils 三障四魔 {sansho shima}; the hindrance of the devil king? Possibly the Fourth Veil / Hindrance; Restlessness and anxiety (uddhacca-kukkucca 掉悔 {chokai}?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Samatha and Vipassana

Please keep in mind that I am giving my own take on things. I encourage others to develop their own understanding. As I have suggested many times, different teachers and traditions use Buddhist terms in unique ways. There are also lots of different translations of terms.

One item that has come to my attention is the use of the terms samatha 止 {shi} and vipassana {kan 観}. The consensus is that Samatha means calm abiding; while vipassana is usually translated as insight. In the Suttas, both are used to mean complimentary mental states developed through meditation. Thus, either Right Absorption 正禅{shozen} or Right Mindfulness 正念 {shonen} could be used to develop both calm abiding and insight.

Gradually, calm abiding {samatha} and insight {vipassana} have come to be viewed as two different kinds of meditation. My perception is that the development of fixed {appana}, one pointed {ekagatta / ekagtrarta}, and absorption {jhana / dhyana} concentration {samadhi} came to be identified with calm abiding {samatha}. Meanwhile, it appears that the development of mindfulness {sati / smrti} or alert concentration came to be associated with insight {vipassana}. This tendency to turn words expressing both shared and distinct meanings into synonyms is rather pervasive in Buddhism.

Absorption and mindfulness are 2/3 of the second training, or cultivation; variously called spiritual development {citta bhavana}, higher mentality {adhicitta}, or the training of concentration {samadhi 定}. The third is exertion or effort {vayama / vyayama}. Collectively, these three could be associated Calm Abiding {samatha}; while vipassana could be associated with the third training of discernment {panna / prajna 慧}.

That stated, I am pretty much retaining this technical mistake for now. I do think that the fixed concentration is more conducive to calm abiding; while mindful concentration is more conducive to insight. However, I also think, eventually, samatha and vipassana will cease to be viewed as two different kinds of meditation. Instead, I suspect they will come to be correctly viewed as complimentary mental states that are achieved through all three methods of cultivation listed in the Eight-fold Path; Proper Exertion, Proper Mindfulness, and Proper Absorption.

Another thing; in the past, I held the view that view that the meditative absorptions, fixed concentration, or calm abiding {not to mention the four fold restraint} could be skipped; that only mindfulness leading to insight is needed. As of right now, I think that was a mistake. Buddhism offers a smorgasbord of useful practices. Buddhists should feel free to pick them up or put them down depending on one's needs. The more important thing is clarity of purpose.

As a faith or devotional practice; I do not venerate any Buddha other than Shakyamuni. The core of my practice is chanting Namu Myoho Renge Kyo; using Nichiren's Gohonzon as a meditative visualization. I also use the mantras of various mythical Bodhisattvas to cultivate specific merits when I see the need. In addition, I use some silent merit cultivations. Moreover, I practice a rudimentary form of the four frames of mindfulness, and am learning to sit in meditative absorption. For me, right now, these practices integrate the three aspects of the training of meditation; proper exertion, proper mindfulness, and proper absorption.