Once the foundations of generosity and ethics are established, the gradual training continues with the cultivation of meditation practices. Theravada Buddhism has a large repertoire of these, including many forms of formal sitting and walking meditation practices, as well as the development of awareness in daily activities. Meditation practices are usually divided into two categories: concentration and mindfulness.
Concentration practices emphasize the development of a stable, one-pointed, fixed focus of mind on such objects as the breath, a mantra, a visual image, or a theme like loving-kindness. States of strong concentration tend to bring about temporary but often helpful states of psychological wholeness and well-being. Loving-kindness (metta in Pali) is a particularly useful theme for concentration because it is the traditional antidote to all forms of aversion and self-criticism. In addition, it helps cultivate an attitude of friendliness that can support other awareness practices.
Mindfulness is the cultivation of an undistracted awareness of the unfolding of events in the present moment. In both concentration and mindfulness practices, alert awareness is stabilized in the present. With concentration practice, awareness is channeled into a controlled focus on a single object to the exclusion of all else. In contrast, mindfulness develops an inclusive, at times even choiceless awareness, noticing whatever arises predominantly in our experience. It is an accepting awareness that clarifies our feelings, thoughts, motivations, attitudes, and ways of reacting. Such awareness in turn helps us to develop compassion and equanimity, both of which support liberation.
By far the most common form ofTheravada meditation practice taught in America today is mindfulness practice. In particular, it is a form of mindfulness derived from the teachings of the Buddha preserved in a scripture called The Sutta on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The four foundations—the body (which includes the breath), feelings, mental states, and dhammas (Sanskrit dharmas, the psychological processes and insights that relate to the cultivation of liberated awareness)—are the four areas of experience in which mindfulness is developed.
Insight and Liberation
With the foundations of sila and samadhi, wisdom, or pañña, starts to grow. The key Theravada Buddhist practice leading to both insight and liberation is mindfulness, sometimes supported by concentration exercises. Mindfulness develops the ground of trust and acceptance that enables us to open to whatever our inner and outer life might bring.While this often includes a great deal of self-knowledge, this trustful openness or non-resistance is itself the door to liberation, known in Theravada Buddhism as the cessation of all clinging. Part of the beauty of mindfulness is that each clear moment of mindfulness is itself a moment of non-clinging, and as such, is a taste of liberation.
As mindfulness becomes stronger, it directly reveals three insights that the Buddha called the three characteristics of all experience, namely that our experience is seen as impermanent, unsatisfactory, and without self.
All things are impermanent, including the way we experience ourselves and the world. Since our experiences are ever-changing, they are inherently unsatisfactory as sources of permanent security or identity. As we see that they cannot provide us with lasting satisfaction, we also realize that anything we experience does not belong to some fixed, autonomous notion of a “self ”—not our thoughts, feelings or body, not even awareness itself.
Sometimes these insights trigger fear, but as our mindfulness practices mature, we realize that we can function happily in the world without needing to cling or attach to anything. So the basic insights arising out of mindfulness practice help us to cultivate trust and a healthy equanimity in the midst of our lives. As this trust grows, it weakens our need to cling. Eventually, the deepest roots of clinging—greed, hatred and delusion—release themselves and the world of liberation opens. The fruit of this liberation is, in a sense, being in a world on to which we no longer project our clingings, fears, longings and aversions. It is to see the world of “things as they are.” If the release of clinging is strong enough, we realize the direct and immediate presence of the “Deathless,” a word Theravada Buddhism uses to refer to the ever-present, timeless experience of liberation.
In a sense the gradual path of training ends with liberation. Liberation is the door from which compassion and wisdom flow forth without selfish clinging or identification. If our compassion has not grown, then our training is incomplete. For some, the byproduct of liberation and compassion is the wish to be of service 133 to others. This can take any one of innumerable active forms, such as aiding a neighbor in difficulty, choosing to work in a helping profession, or teaching the Dharma. Before sending his first sixty enlightened disciples out into the world to teach the Dharma, the Buddha said to them,
My friends, I am free from all human and spiritual entanglements. And as you are likewise free of all human and spiritual entanglements, go forth into the world for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, with compassion for the world, and for the benefit, the blessing, and the happiness of gods and humans…. Reveal the spiritual life, complete and pure in spirit and in form.
The desire to be of service can also take more passive expressions, such as living simply as a monk or nun, as an example of a life of practice. By itself, the act of Awakening is a great gift, a great act of service, because others will never again be subjected to the greed, hatred and delusion of an Awakened one. Rather they will benefit from the radiance, example and wisdom of someone set free. The gift of Awakening can be seen as bringing the spiritual path full circle, with generosity found at both the beginning and ending of the path.
A key element at every stage of the path is faith, a word that is often troublesome for Westerners. In Theravada Buddhism, faith does not mean blind belief. Rather, it describes trust or confidence in oneself, in the teachings and practices of liberation, and in the community of teachers and practitioners, both past and present. It is the kind of faith that inspires one to verify for oneself the experiential possibilities of a spiritual life.
As these possibilities become actualized, we often discover increasing levels of trust in our personal capacity for openness and wisdom. This in turn gives rise to an increasing appreciation of the people and teachings supporting this inner trust. In the Theravada tradition, these are represented by the Three Treasures: the Buddha; the Dharma, or teachings; and the Sangha, or the community of practitioners.
One of the most common rituals for lay practitioners in Theravada Buddhism is “Taking Refuge,” consciously choosing to be supported and inspired by the Three Treasures. While “Taking Refuge” is performed as a matter of course at ceremonies, during retreats, and when visiting a temple, it can be a pivotal moment when, for the first time, one takes refuge with the conscious intent of orienting one’s life in accordance with one’s deepest values and aspirations. Relating our practice to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha helps ensure that it is not only limited to intellectual concerns, issues of personal therapy, or selfish ambitions.Taking refuge helps solidify a broad foundation of trust and respect from which true mindfulness and insight can grow.
Excerpt from : “The Issue at Hand” by Gil Fronsdal – Full text can be found here.