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Right Mindfulness

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by Sangharakshita

The Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path

Lecture 53: Levels of Awareness: Right Mindfulness Venerable Sir and Friends, Buddhism generally speaking is known as a religion. And as a religion we may say it exists on two quite different, quite distinct, but nevertheless quite intimately connected and related levels. That is to say it exists on a popular level, a level of popular practice and observance and faith and piety, and it exists also on what we may describe, within single inverted commas, as a `philosophical' level, a level of higher thought, of metaphysics, even of transcendental intuition and so on. Now taking, or rather turning to, popular Buddhism, or Buddhism as it exists on the popular level, the level of popular practice, we find that one of the most popular of these popular practices is that of going on pilgrimage. I remember when I was in India years ago, I remember every autumn, every winter, bands of people started arriving in India, especially in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh from all the Buddhist countries of Asia, even from faraway England and America, to visit some of the places associated with the life and teaching of the Buddha, places like Bodh-gaya where He gained Enlightenment, Sarnath where He taught His first discourse and so on. And many of these people had come a very long way indeed, not only hundreds but even thousands of miles to visit these places to pay their respects in these ancient sacred shrines to the memory of the Buddha, the Enlightened One. And it was noticeable, it was observable that when they left their own countries they left sometimes in great companies, not only of scores but even of hundreds of people, but it was also noticeable that not all of them arrived at their destination. Some fell as it were by the wayside, some just died en route, others unfortunately, I sometimes noticed, on my way to the Holy places got detained rather a long time in Calcutta and sometimes didn't get on to the Holy places at all. And in fact I remember in the case of some of my Tibetan friends, when they used to say that they were going off on pilgrimage for three months, you knew that that meant two days in Bodh-gaya, and the rest of the time among the flesh pots of Calcutta! So this the sort of thing that happens, a few at least will fall by the wayside in one way or another.

Now in the course of the last few weeks, I think it's six or seven weeks now, we too have been on what we may describe as a sort of pilgrimage. We've been following, or trying to follow in imagination, at least, a path much more long, much more difficult than any trod by any earthly pilgrim in the purely geographical sense - the pilgrimage, the journey upon the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. And in this journey of ours, in this pilgrimage of ours, many set out at the beginning and most of those, I'm glad to say, are still with us, even after some six, now seven, rather strenuous weeks. A few of course have joined us en route, they weren't with us for the earlier stages of the pilgrimage but they joined us en route and are still perhaps with us. And everybody seems to be making quite good, quite satisfactory progress in this pilgrimage of ours.

But today we come almost to, if not the end of our journey, at least to the beginning of the end. Because today we're going to consider the question of levels of awareness. In other words today we shall be concerned with what is usually termed `Right Mindfulness' which is the seventh stage or seventh aspect of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. But before we go on to this stage, before we try to understand some of the implications of Right Mindfulness, of awareness, let us just first of all allow ourselves a very brief, a very quick backward glance, let us look back along the path that we've traversed so far and try to see, try to ascertain just how far we have come.

We saw in the first place that this great Path, the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path, consists of two great stages, two principal stages. The first is known as the Path of Vision. The second is known as the Path of Transformation. The first, the Path of Vision, consists of what we've described as the initial spiritual insight and experience. Insight into, experience of, the true nature of existence or reality itself. And this Path of Vision comprises the first stage, the first of the eight stages of the Path, that is to say what is termed Perfect Vision, samyag-drsti.

Now the second great stage, the stage or Path of Transformation, we saw consists in the whole process of transformation by this insight, by this vision, of the different aspects and the different levels of our own being and our own consciousness. And this stage, the stage of transformation, comprises, we saw in the first place, Perfect Emotion, then Perfect Speech, Perfect Action, Perfect Livelihood and Perfect Effort. And the first three of these we saw, that is to say Perfect Emotion, Perfect Speech and Perfect Action, these three pertain more to the transformation of our individual life, our individual existence, whereas the fourth of these - that is to say the fifth stage of the path - Perfect Livelihood pertains more to the transformation of all aspects of our collective existence whether social or political or economic.

Perfect Effort, we saw, represents the transformation of the individual will or volition. And as we saw last week this Perfect Effort is fourfold or of four kinds, consisting in an effort to prevent, an effort to eradicate what are known as unskilful mental states, and in an effort to develop and to maintain what are known as skilful mental states. Now this stage of the path, this aspect of the path, Perfect Effort, also pertains, we saw, more to the transformation of the individual life, the individual will, the individual volition, but it does this against, as we also saw, a very wide background indeed, this background being nothing less than the whole evolutionary process, the whole story, the whole history of the evolution of life and consciousness on this planet. In fact Perfect Effort, we _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________ saw, represents what we may describe as the evolutionary aspect of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. It draws attention to the fact that the Eightfold Path, in fact the whole of the higher spiritual life, is a sort of continuation on an even higher level of the evolutionary process itself. So that one can in fact speak of two great stages or phases of evolution, that is to say what we've termed Lower Evolution and what we've termed Higher Evolution. Lower evolution, we saw, is the whole process of development of life from the amoeba up to the self-aware human being.

Whereas the second, the higher evolution, is the whole process of development of the self-aware human being right up to enlightened humanity, the state or position of an enlightened human being, that is to say a Buddha, a fully emancipated wise and compassionate one.

So this stage, this phase of the higher evolution is represented by the higher religions in general and especially, we would say, by Buddhism, the Buddha's teaching, and in particular, in its higher reaches at least, by this same Noble Eightfold Path. Now we saw towards the end of last week's talk that the lower evolution and the higher evolution are, as it were, continuous, the one leads out of, develops from, the other. But at the same time we saw there are important differences between them, between lower evolution and higher evolution. Lower evolution is collective - the species advances as a whole, as a group - whereas the higher evolution is individual - it's one person at a time - so that one person may go a little ahead, another may remain a little behind. Also we saw the lower evolution is largely unconscious. The lower the level of evolution the more unconscious it is. And even in its higher levels, its higher reaches, it is at least not actually self-conscious. But the higher evolution on the other hand, on the contrary, the higher evolution is self-conscious, it is aware, it is something which is, as it were, personally directed, personally willed into existence, personally achieved, achieved in awareness and clear consciousness. And this is the point where - this is the point at which - we arrived last week. And we'll lead on today from there.

Today, as I've already said, we come to the whole question of `levels of awareness'. In other words we come as we've already heard to Right Mindfulness, which is the penultimate, the last but one stage, of the Path.

Now the connection of this stage, the connection of this Right Mindfulness with the previous stage, the stage of Perfect Effort, of the conscious evolution of man, should not be difficult to see. We've already said that the higher evolution is distinguished from the lower by the fact that it is an aware process. It takes place in and through awareness. And it follows therefore that progress in the higher evolution is at the same time a progress in awareness. And progress of course, as we know, is measured by the achievement of successively higher levels. And this therefore in turn introduces the whole idea of levels of awareness. These levels of awareness it is which are the subject matter of the seventh stage of the path, that is to say Right Mindfulness. And it's into these that we have to go, it's these which we have to investigate if we want to know what Right Mindfulness or Perfect Awareness really connotes, really conveys.

Now first of all what is Right Mindfulness literally? What do the words themselves actually mean, what are the words in the original language or languages? In Sanskrit one says samyak-smrti, which is equivalent to the Pali samma-sati. Smrti or sati is usually translated ...

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