Transcribing the oral tradition...

Social network icons Connect with us on your favourite social network The FBA Podcast Stay Up-to-date via Email, and RSS feeds Stay up-to-date
download whole text as a pdf   Next   

Mindfulness as a Spiritual Faculty - Poison and Purification

by Kamalashila

Poison and Purification
11/22/2006 02:27 PM
Mindfulness as a Spiritual Faculty
Croydon: Tuesday 24.09.96 (Adapted from a talk on ‘The Fifth Precept’ given earlier in the year at the LBC.)
As you all probably know, the whole question of Mindfulness or Awareness relates to the fifth of the five
Buddhist ethical precepts. In Buddhism, being aware is a precept that we take upon ourselves. As
Buddhists, we undertake to cultivate awareness. Awareness is a matter of ethics, it’s a matter of
morality. Indeed, it is awareness itself that makes morality possible—as we’ll be hearing later on.
Awareness or mindfulness is also the central faculty of a group of special faculties or, as we could even
call them, special senses which we develop in the course of practising the Buddhist Path.
The first of these extra senses is wisdom—our dawning understanding and vision of the way things
really are. And this special ‘sense’, or faculty, of wisdom is balanced by the development of another
sense, the sense of faith—the ability really to place our hearts on the ideal of Enlightenment. It isn’t
enough just to see clearly the ideal of Enlightenment, even with the eye of wisdom. We need also to
give ourselves to it, and this is why faith is needed to balance wisdom.
But it isn’t so easy to give ourselves, to trust it—it isn’t so easy to have such complete, unshakable
confidence in the Buddhist Path. Which means we can’t fully practise it. So in order to be able to trust it
more and more, we need to see more and more that it really works. Before we can see that, we need to
understand what ‘it’ actually is—understand in the ordinary way, which is a bit different from wisdom.
Simply understand what ‘it’, what the Buddhist Path, is actually trying to achieve. We usually come
along with wrong assumptions about what Buddhism is about. Indeed, we are bound to have at least a
few wrong ideas. Quite a few of us come along, for example, with the assumption that Buddhism ‘must’
believe that there is a creator God. It can take years before we can accept that it really doesn’t do that—
and even then, perhaps in the corner of our mind, that view still finds a place.
I’m still talking about the spiritual faculty or sense of faith. So in order to place our heart on and to trust
Buddhism, we need to develop our rational understanding of what it actually is, what it actually says. But
that isn’t enough; we also need to develop our intuitions about it. We need to cultivate that sixth sense
about what is right, what is good, so that when we have that feeling ‘that’s good’, or ‘that’s how it
should be’, we are actually right. Intuition can be wrong, well wrong—but we train it until our feelings
and intuitions start to be in accordance with reality. As our intuition becomes more and more developed
in this non-rational way, as well as in a rational way, it also starts getting easier for us to trust the
Buddhist Path and therefore to be able to practice it.
It takes plenty of time and much experimentation to do this. And of course it requires plenty of effort,
plenty of energy. Not only effort; spiritual development requires concentration of mind, even
concentration of the will—otherwise our efforts won’t have any direction and just end up dissipated all
over the place. So here we have two more special senses which are developed in the course of practising
the Buddhist Path: effort or vigour, and concentration. Concentration requires effort, effort requires
concentration. These two need to be balanced too, just like faith and wisdom. Without energy,
concentration becomes dull. Without concentration, our energy is dissipated. So faith, wisdom, and
concentration and effort. And in the centre of all these, as though at the centre of a mandala or a
compass with each at one of the four quarters, is the spiritual faculty of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a
special sense that we develop, a special faculty. It is with our awareness that we watch over, with which
we monitor, all our efforts to develop ourselves.
So these are the five spiritual faculties. To summarise the five, I’ll quote Bhante’s summary from The
Essence of Zen:
Page 1 of 7
Poison and Purification
11/22/2006 02:27 PM
Essence of Zen:
Faith, representing the emotional and devotional aspect of the spiritual life, must be balanced by wisdom,
otherwise it runs riot in religious hysteria, persecution mania, fanaticism, and intolerance. On the other hand
wisdom, which stands for the intellectual - better cognitive or gnostic - aspect, must be balanced by faith,
without which it speedily degenerates into hair-splitting scholasticism. Vigour, or the active, kinetic aspect of
the spiritual life, must be balanced by concentration, representing the introspective, contemplative counter-
tendency, without which vigour is either animal high spirits or neurotic restlessness, and concentration itself by
vigour, divorced from which concentration is aimless reverie, morbid introspection, or neurotic withdrawal.
Mindfulness, the remaining faculty, being by its very nature incapable of going to extremes - one can't have too
much mindfulness - requires no counter-balancing faculty to hold it in check. Mindfulness it is, indeed, that
keeps faith and wisdom, and vigour and concentration, in a state of equilibrium. `Mindfulness is always useful,'
the Buddha once declared.
What are we aware of?
In terms of the precepts, the fifth precept, we speak of the principle of mindfulness, and especially of
purification of the mind. Thus ‘with mindfulness clear and radiant I purify my mind’. So this is the
principle—clarity of mind, maintaining a clear consciousness so that we can really see, really think,
really feel what is going on. So whatever encourages such clear consciousness is to be cultivated, and
whatever hinders such clear consciousness is to be avoided. This is why the precept is phrased in terms
of abstention from intoxicants. The actual words of the precept, as we recite them together with the three
Refuges, is: Sur1meraya Majja Pam1datth1na.
The meaning of this is pretty straightforward. Sur1 is a Pali, originally Vedic, word meaning
intoxicating drink. Meraya is a particular kind of intoxicant: it’s a strong spirit, perhaps like rum or gin.
The word meraya is usually found together with sur1, just as we find it here in sur1meraya. Then the
word majja also means a strongly intoxicating drink. Majja is derived from the Pali word mada, or mad,
meaning intoxication or intoxicated. (Perhaps surprisingly, this word mad has no discernible
etymological connection with our English word ‘mad’.)
This specific connection with alcohol may be misleading. In Buddhist tradition you find listed many
kinds of mada, many kinds of intoxication. There were twenty-seven different varieties in one list I
came across. Substance use and abuse is not the only way. Often in the Sutras three unskilful intoxicated
states of mind are mentioned. One may be drunk with the intoxication of youth, drunk with the
intoxication of good health, and drunk with the intoxication of life. We may well have heard that famous
passage in the Sutra of Golden Light, in the Confession from the Sutra of Golden Light.
‘May the Buddhas, whose minds are full of mercy and compassion, watch over me, those
best of two-footed beings, who dwell in the world in its ten directions. And whatever evil,
cruel act was done by me previously, I will confess it all before the Buddhas... Whatever
evil I have done by being drunk with the intoxication of authority, or with the intoxication
of high birth, or by being drunk with the intoxication of tender age’.
So here we have various states of intoxicated mentality, states which are seen as regrettable because they
lead to unskilful action. Intoxication, that is, which comes about simply through being young and full of
life; simply through being in good health; and there are those states of intoxication we may fall into when
we are in some position of authority relative to others; or when our upbringing is privileged, relative to
I think these show the essential nature of intoxication quite clearly. In all these situations we feel good,
but our feeling good does not motivate us to do good. We just feel really great. Really grand, full of
ourselves, full of life, full of energy, full of pizazz—we feel like we always wanted to feel, feel
intelligent, feel active, attractive, inspired.
Well at least, perhaps, that is how we conceive the state of being inspired.
Page 2 of 7
Poison and Purification
11/22/2006 02:27 PM
Let’s leave aside this question of inspiration, the question whether feeling really great means we are
inspired. Because in this state of feeling really great, something is missing. We are somehow too full of
ourselves. We are ...

download whole text as a pdf   Next