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The Meaning of Parinirvana

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by Sangharakshita

... tradition summarises these obstacles, these hindrances which hold us down in a lower state of consciousness and prevent us rising to a higher state of consciousness, under the general heading of what are known as the five defilements, which are also sometimes known as the five poisons, because they poison the whole of our existence, and if we're not careful bring us even to spiritual death.

What are these five? First of all, distraction; secondly, aversion; thirdly, craving; fourthly, ignorance; and fifthly, conceit. Now for overcoming these five defilements or poisons, there are five different types of practice, and these are what we call the five basic methods of meditation. In other words, for overcoming each poison, each defilement within our own lower consciousness, there is a specific method of meditation, and we are advised to use these methods according to our own temperament. In other words, if one particular poison or defilement predominates, we concentrate on the corresponding method of meditation which remedies that, and if we find for instance our experience changes, if we find, say, that one particular defilement is predominant one week and another defilement predominant the next week or the next month, we can change our method of practice accordingly. So let me go briefly through these five methods of meditation, these five basic methods, and give you some idea of how these five defilements or five poisons are counteracted and overcome.

First of all there's the defilement or the poison of distraction. What does this mean? Distraction is inability to concentrate. You're in a state where your mind is very easily taken away. You're doing something, or you're supposed to be doing something, but you can't concentrate on it, you keep thinking of something else, or you keep losing your attention, your mind is carried away.

Someone comes to see you, you forget all about what you were supposed to be doing, or you hear a sound or you see something and at once your mind is carried away by that; and some people unfortunately, especially under the conditions of modern life, find it practically impossible just to settle down and concentrate on one thing at a time, whatever they are supposed to be doing. They are being perpetually as it were bombarded by stimuli, perpetually bombarded by various things which drag their attention away - and sometimes it doesn't even have to be dragged, it's very easily taken away. So this is distraction, this inability to concentrate. It's also very much tied up with what I was talking about before, this queston of non-integration. Your energies are not integrated, they're not all pulling in the same direction or working in the same direction, in the same way; so one stream of energy, for instance, one self, as it were, wants to concentrate on something, so it does it for a little while, then another self pops up with its own stream of energy, wants to concentrate on something else or at least doesn't want to concentrate on that particular thing, so it tries to take over. There's conflict, and in the end the first self succumbs, the other self takes over, and in terms of the first self and its interests mind has wandered, you become distracted. And this is going on all the time.

So what is the remedy for this? How can we overcome our distractedness? How can we collect ourselves, bring ourselves together, bring our energies together? Which is the method for this? The method - as most of you know, I'm sure, already - is the method of the mindfulness of breathing. Mindfulness of breathing is especially intended to correct and overcome this defilement, this poison, of mental distraction and lack of collectedness. And most of you know how we practise it. We practise it in various stages. We settle ourselves comfortably down and we just allow the attention, the concentration, to focus on the breath. We are just aware of ourselves breathing in and breathing out in a quite natural manner, and we start counting; and as most of you know, in the first stage of practice we count at the end of each in-and-out breath, in the second stage we count at the beginning of each in-and-out breath. Then in the third stage we drop the counting; mind should have become pretty concentrated by this time, and we just allow ourselves to become absorbed in the flow of the breath as it flows in and flows out or appears to expand and contract, rise and fall; become absorbed in this sort of movement, in a very rhythmical way. Finally experience getting deeper and deeper and deeper. And in the fourth stage we settle down and concentrate just on that tiny as it were tickling sensation that we experience within the nostrils. And in the end, even that may go, and we'll be as it were suspended, if you like, in mid-air as it were, with nothing to concentrate on. We are concentrated but we are not concentrating on anything. We are just harmonious. We are just like a sphere which is resting on one non- dimensional point. It's perfectly at rest and perfectly mobile at the same time. This is our state at the end of this practice of the Mindfulness of breathing. So this particular practice, the Mindfulness of Breathing, which the majority of you know very well, having practised it for some time, is the remedy in particular for distraction, wandering of the mind, and this is one reason why we usually start off with this practice in our classes; because unless you can concentrate to some extent, unless you can bring at least some of your scattered energies together, you can't make any progress with any method of meditation.

This comes at the beginning. First of all, therefore, the mindfulness of breathing, helping you to overcome distraction, and paving the way for the practice of other methods.

Now we've overcome this first defilement; now for the second one. This is the defilement of aversion or, if you like, hate. It's overcome by practising the method of what is called imaitri bhavanai, usually translated as the development of universal loving-kindness; the development of an attitude towards all living beings, the development of an attitude of positive emotion - a feeling of love, compassion, sympathy and so on. This practice, too, as again most of you know, proceeds through a number of stages. First of all you develop love and good will towards your own self; you feel it, you experience it quite powerfully. Then you extend that to a near and dear friend, then to some neutral person, then even to an enemy, and then you start directing it towards all living beings in ever-widening circles: all the people in the room with you, all the people in the town, the city, the country, all the continents, eventually the whole world; and eventually the feeling goes out towards all living beings whatsoever, in all the directions of space. And this is not a thought, it's an actual feeling. You actually feel well towards all these other living beings; your heart, your whole being, even, eventually, is filled with a warm, positive glow of love and friendliness and good will and benevolence towards all other forms of life. So this is the development of imaitrii, friendliness, which is the method for overcoming aversion.

Thirdly, the defilement, the poison, of craving. This is intense, powerful, if you like neurotic, desire, craving, lust to possess this, that and the other. And this is very powerful, very primordial, one might say, and very difficult to overcome. Here there are three kinds of method given; whereas in the case of the other defilements there's usually only one, here there are three.

First of all, the recollection of impurity. This is a rather drastic method that very few people have recourse to nowadays. It's usually supposed to be practised only by monks and hermits and suchlike people. It consists in going to a burning ground and sitting down in the proximity of corpses in different stages of decay; and this is still practised by some people in the East. But, obviously, you have to have very strong nerves and a very strong spiritual resolution to be able to practise in this way.

Then there's the recollection of death, which is the same sort of thing only milder; and, thirdly, recollection of impermanence, which is still more general and therefore milder still. Now we are particularly concerned this evening with the second of these, the second of these three methods of overcomiong craving, that is to say we are concerned with the recollection of death.

Let's go into this in a little more detail. According to the traditional practice, before one actually starts practising the recollection of death, you must practise mindfulness, you must develop mindfulness - preferably, if necessary, with the help of the method of the mindfulness of breathing. In other words, when you take up the practice of the recollection of death, your mind must already be in a very integrated, peaceful, harmonious and happy state, and relatively free from discursive thought and cogitation and reflection and so on. Now this is very important, for a definite reason. If you take up the practice of the recollection of death without having experienced mindfulness beforehand, the likelihood is that in your practice of the recollection of death you will go astray, and you will practise unwisely - maybe even with harmful results.

For instance, if you take up the recollection of death straight away without having achieved a very definite mindfulness first, you may start thinking of people near and dear to you who have died; and since your state is one of unmindfulness, you may start feeling sad, and this would certainly get in the way of your meditation practice, it would pull you ...

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