Bhavana: Development

Walpola Rahula (1907–1997) was a Sri Lankan Buddhist bhikkhu, scholar and writer. When he became the Professor of History and Religions at Northwestern University in 1964, he also became the first bhikkhu to hold a professorship in the West. His introduction to Buddhism, What the Buddha Taught, is considered a modern Buddhist classic. In the book, Rahula writes,

The word meditation is a very poor substitute for the original term bhavana, which means ‘culture’ or ‘development’, i.e., mental culture or mental development.” [1]

I think Rhaula’s statement would also apply to the word “mindfulness.”

I don’t know what Rahula means by “original term,” but I do recall either reading or hearing that bhavana was the term most often used by the historical Buddha in reference to meditative discipline. According to Alan Sponberg, the term is “certainly the broadest in its semantic range.” [2]

Rahula called bhavana “mental culture.” Amadeo Sole-Leris wrote that bhavana is “to cultivate and develop the vast potential of the mind in order to overcome the unsatisfactory nature of the internal and external circumstances in which we find ourselves.” [3]   Someone else (I don’t remember who) called it “creative control of the mind.”

I like the word development because I feel it accurately describes the process. In Buddhist practice we develop our innate potential for well-being and happiness. We can also say that bhavana in all its various forms is a system for training the mind. Buddhism teaches that an undisciplined mind is disturbed by circumstances such as gain or by loss, comfort or hardship, and is attached to transient things, all of which invites suffering. We want to train the mind so that we can learn better how to use reason and wisdom to deal with life’s challenges, and so we can break the habit of seizing and clinging, and this brings freedom from suffering, insofar as we can accept sufferings as they come without losing inner peace.

The wild, untrained mind that we often dub “monkey mind,” can be pacified, the restless monkey brought under control. However, if we limit the broad range of practice bhavana covers to only the mind, then it is a poor substitute for what the Buddha taught.

What the Buddha sought to achieve personally was nothing less than total transformation of his entire being. That meant body as well as mind. I wonder if sometimes we don’t tend to focus on the mental health aspect of meditation and mindfulness and neglect the physical health side. Gautama Shakyamuni was called the Great Physician and his teachings the King of Medicines, not only for his psychology of mind. After the Buddha’s passing, a great tradition of healer-monks emerged, and this tradition is still upheld today in the system of Tibetan Medicine and healing.

Here is a wonderful explanation on the relationship between mind, body, and bhavana from Tulku Trondup, a prominent teaching in the area of Buddhist healing, that I found in his book Boundless Healing:

Mind and body are intimately connected, and the relationship of mind to body in meditation is very interesting. When we see the body as peaceful and beautiful, who or what is creating these feelings? The mind is. By creating peaceful feelings in the body, the mind is absorbed in those feelings. So although the body is the object to be healed, it also becomes the means of healing the mind – which is the ultimate goal of meditation.” [4]

– – – – – – – – – –

[1] Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press, 1974, 68

[2] Alan Sponberg, “Meditation in Fa-hsiang Buddhism”, Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism, Ed. Peter N. Gregory, University of Hawaii Press, 1986, 19

[3] Amadeo Sole-Leris, Tranquility and Insight An Introduction to the Oldest Form of Buddhist Meditation, Shambhala, 1986, 21

[4] Tulku Thondup, Boundless Healing Meditation Exercises to Enlighten the Mind and Heal the Body, Shambhala, 2000, 12


Mindfulness Can Cure the Dreaded Berry Berry Disease (and Cooties)

Unlike some folks, I like the idea of corporate mindfulness.  Anything that helps foster more responsible capitalism should be encouraged. Take Forbes, for instance. A business publication founded back in 1917. They’ve jumped on the Mindfulness bandwagon. Just in the last month they’ve published articles such as Does Practicing Mindfulness Really Make For More Effective Leadership?, Meditation Isn’t Just Mind Medicine, It’s Also Good For Your Heart, and The Mindfulness Craze.

Speaking of the Mindfulness craze, I’m just wondering . . . Are you having a mindful day? Did you know that mindful meals are healthier? Are you running mindfully or practicing mindful walking? Do you know how to conduct a mindful job search?  Or, if you are already employed, are you being a mindful employee? Are you a parent? Do you know about mindful parenting? Do you have the mindfulness app for your Smartphone or iPhone?


I could go on and on . . . and on!

You know what I find truly irritating? It’s when people use the term “mindful meditation,” for if “mindful” meant exactly what it is supposed to mean, then I think “mindful meditation” would be redundant. Wouldn’t it?

So, this begs the question, are we using mindful/mindfulness properly? In the proper context? One thing I know – we sure as hell are overusing it.

Mindfulness stands for the Pali word sati and the Sanskirt smrti, both of which mean “memory,” “recollection,” “remembering.” These terms signify the recalling of past events, which is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve with meditation. An instruction that I’ve often given, one I borrowed from Thich Nhat Hanh I think, is to sit with “no thought of the past, no anticipation of the future, just be in the now.”

Buddhist scholar John Dunne says “It is not really about memory in any very direct way; it is really the facet of mind that keeps the mind from wandering.” The Buddha used the word sati/smrti in the sense of “moment-to-moment awareness of present events.”

How did we get started with mindfulness in the first place? In 1881, T.W. Rhys Davids was the first to use “mindfulness” in his translations of suttas from the Digha and Majjhima Nikayas. It’s all his fault.

When we meditate we are trying to be mindful of the “present moment,” to use another term we’ve beaten to death like a dead horse. (?)

But, the real point I’d like to make is – oops, sorry, have to save it for another post. The mindfulness app on my phone just went off. Gentle bells alerting me it is time to be mindful . . . Oh joy, joy. I feel so special being ever so mindfully mindful.



Today marks the 31st anniversary of the day I accepted the Precepts and officially became a Buddhist. Then, I was full of answers. Now, full of questions. I question, for instance, if it is necessary to become a “Buddhist.” I question the doctrines of karma and rebirth. And yet, I cannot help leaning toward a sort of Buddhist exceptionalism, and I am waiting, like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for a rebirth of wonder.

During these 31 years I have been dedicated to a meditative practice, be it mantra or meditation, or both. I have been dedicated but not consistent. I am sure there are many meditation teachers who have nearly perfect practices. I am not one of them. I am too busy trying to be human to be perfect.

I don’t know how many of you practice meditation. I wouldn’t say that meditation is for everyone, unless they are Buddhist. Buddhism is a philosophy but more than that it is about the process of awakening, which is nearly impossible to describe, and according to Buddhism, impossible to undertake without meditation.

Buddhist Meditation, on the other hand, can be described, and although there are many variations, a good general description would be that it is a system for mind development. In turn, mind development can be described plainly as observing. The breath and the mind are the two most common objects for observation.

Another word for observation is seeing. T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i translated the Indian term for basic Buddhism meditation, samatha- vipassana (tranquility and insight) as “stopping and seeing” (chih-kuan), and said, “seeing (kuan) is observing, examining, introspecting . . . when the mind is seeing clearly it is seeing. The chief aim [of meditation] is the concentration of mind by special methods for the purpose of clear insight and to be rid of illusion.”

This is stating things very simply. Yet, I believe that the historical Buddha’s approach to meditation was very simple, in the beginning. I feel he wanted to offer an alternative to the complex meditation techniques offered by the teachers of his day.

The Buddha said if you want to overcome suffering, then once or twice a day, sit down, be still and calm your mind. Just focus on your breath and be one with the timeless reality of now.

It is true that meditation is not enough. We must apply the awareness and wisdom we cultivate through meditation into our daily life. It’s also true that meditation won’t change the world. But it may change you, and me. And we have to be the change we want to see in the world. Gandhi didn’t really say that. What he said was,

If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.”

In my experience, there are very few people who truly want to change their life. Oh, they will accept change if it comes easy to them and includes material benefits. Deep-seated change is too hard for most. Some people will never meditate because they are afraid of seeing too clearly the loneliness and pain of their life. When they try meditation, though, and stick with it, then they understand that observing also means seeing through our suffering, transcending it.

That is enough for today. It is after midnight and I need to post this and then go to bed. I have changed a lot in 31 years. One thing that’s changed is I am beginning to agree with the Dalai Lama that “Sleep is the best meditation.”


It’s a Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod Buddhist World

In recent years, there’s been an on-going debate, or perhaps it should be called a discussion, over whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy. I always say that while Buddhism obviously embraces both religion and philosophy, it goes beyond them. It’s a path, a Way, and I think it is unique, which I suppose makes me a believer in Buddhist exceptionalism.

My attention was drawn yesterday to a 2007 interview in Tricycle with Robert Sharf, a professor at Berkeley. Sharf has some opinions about the religion vs. philosophy controversy, and evidently he has some issues with modern Buddhism that writer Andrew Cooper sums up this way:

Sharf’s critique of Buddhist modernism stems from a belief that we cannot reduce Buddhism to a simple set of propositions and practices without in some way distorting our sense of its wholeness and complexity. For Sharf, understanding a religious tradition demands not only familiarity with contemporary practice but also a willingness to enter into dialogue with what is historically past and culturally foreign. To participate in such a dialogue we need knowledge of the context in which the tradition is embedded and an ability to see past the presuppositions of our own time and place. Clearing the ground, as it were, for this dialogue with tradition is the job of critical scholarly practice in religious life.”

I couldn’t agree more. The only problem is that most people could care less about Buddhism’s historical past, and at best have only a passing interest in its cultural roots. They may not even be interested in becoming enlightened. They just want to meditate or chant, get some peace of mind, find a tool to help cope with problems, or experience just a small measure of happiness.

MPdfr2bSo what is to be done? Tell folks they can’t meditate unless they study Buddhist history? Insist that as a qualification for becoming a Buddhist, you must master all the teachings within the tradition you’ve associated yourself with? Naturally, that’s absurd. The right approach is a Middle Way approach, one that is accommodating to the needs of different individuals and their interests. Even so, Sharf’s point about understanding the context of Buddhism should be given some deliberation.

The logic of Buddha-dharma is Eastern, and therefore, contrasts, and at times, even conflicts with with Western logical thinking. Having a sense of the historical and culture context of Buddhism helps individuals navigate through this and reduces misunderstanding. It shouldn’t be mandatory, though. People should be able to feel they can come into Buddhism without being saddled with stuff they don’t want. We need to find better ways of presenting dharma in a Western context that doesn’t leave it diluted, detoured, or destroyed.

Sharf places the bulk of his criticism of Buddhist modernism with the Buddhism of a hundred or so years ago, when it was first introduced to the West. I get the impression that he feels the major players at that time, both Eastern and Western, mishandled some of the dharma and their flawed take remains embedded with Western Buddhism today.

I agree with much of what Sharf has to say, for instance that “There is also a kind of arrogance in claiming that Buddhism is not so much a religion as it is the path to the truth behind all religions.” It’s not. All religious philosophies do not point to One truth. They are not all the same, nor all they all equal. Buddhism does not lead to the same truth as Christianity. Although there are points where they may intersect, Buddhism and Christianity are entirely different paths. I’m not sure I’d call it arrogance. Seems more like confusion to me.

On the other hand, I disagree with a number of his comments about attempts to make Buddhism compatible with science, but I also realize that it’s not important for Buddhism to be compatible with science.

On a slightly different subject, he says that “[When] we downplay ritual, we risk weakening our bonds to community and tradition. That’s a pretty major loss.” Not really. The sangha during the Buddha’s time had a terrific sense of community, and very little ritual. Most Buddhist ritualism came long after the Buddha departed the scene.

One important point Sharf makes is about the emphasis on “experience,” such as kensho, satori, realizing high states of attainment like sotapatti, or “stream entry” – experiences we can place under the heading of “sudden enlightenment.” Even though many of these concepts date back to early Buddhism, the modern preoccupation with them is a dangerous trend because it gives people the impression that meditation is a quick fix. When they find out it isn’t, they often give up. Frequently, I hear people say that meditation is boring. Yeah, it is. And hard, too. However, the point of meditation is not to have some attainment but to change yourself, to cultivate (bhavana) a better person. When people give up because it’s not easy, they miss out on the real the benefit of practice that could have been theirs.

According to Sharf, when “primacy is given to individual spiritual experience”, something is lost. Here I think he is talking about experience in a different context than that discussed in the above paragraph. And what gets lost? He says, “The sangha gets lost! The community gets lost.” Personally, I don’t feel that Buddhism is really about community. It’s about the teachings, the dharma, and the ultimate transformation of the individual who practices dharma.

lampsThis is why the Buddha taught “enlightenment by one’s own efforts” and advised his followers to “be lamps unto themselves, relying upon themselves only and not relying upon any external help.” Practice must include others, but not necessarily in any organized sense, rather more in the way that one person lights a lamp within themselves, and then helps the next person light their lamp.

I’m not suggesting that community isn’t helpful, even essential, for it is difficult to maintain a practice without the camaraderie and mutual encouragement found in a sangha.

Things do get lost in modern Buddhism. Michael McGhee, a senior lecturer in philosophy at Liverpool University, who has weighed into this discussion of religion vs. philosophy with a more recent article, “Is Buddhism a religion?” makes a point about the effort to de- mythologize or secularize Buddhism that I feel is worth calling to your attention:

But it is one thing to seek to liberate Buddhist practice from unsustainable or unbelievable worldviews and another to reduce it to a mere technique, even one that is therapeutic. The usual culprit is the calming technique that makes it easier to carry out the bombing run or makes one a more sharply predatory capitalist. The reason one might want to say that meditation has been reduced to a technique is that it has lost its essential rootedness as a practice of ethical preparation.”

In my experience, ethics is an aspect of dharma that too often falls by the wayside in favor of other topics. I especially wonder about the more secular Buddhists (I don’t know if “Secular Buddhism” really exists off the Internet), and with behavioral medicine programs such as Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which I have no experience with – I wonder to what extent, if any, ethics in all the various forms of modern Buddhism is de-emphasized.

Because ethics is a synonym for morality, it has a negative connotation for many people. After all, one of the motivations for some to seek out Buddhism is frustration over the excessive moralizing of their previous religion. But we should never lose sight of the fact that Buddhism was among the first spiritual teachings in India to place an emphasis on moral conduct. It is not enough, the Buddha maintained, to merely practice meditation and reject materialism; one should also strive to lead a moral, upright life.

Ethics (sila) is one of the three pillars of Buddhism; the other two being meditation (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna). When ethics is left out, the dharma becomes lopsided.

Meditation helps balance the mind so that the influence of the roots of unwholesome mental states are counteracted. Wisdom is knowing the right thing to do, understanding the value of virtuous acts and the folly of non-virtuous ones. That, at least, is their most basic operations.

The Sanskrit word sila literally means “behavior,” and the real benefit to be derived from meditation and wisdom is a change in behavior, or in the Buddha’s words, “to avoid negative actions, and do actions that are good.” Thus, ethics in Buddhism is the result of meditation and wisdom, and without it, neither dharma nor practice is complete.

Well, that is more than enough for now. I hope I offered some thoughts worthy of your consideration, and thanks for reading The Endless Further.


“When there is darkness, light is needed.”

“When there is darkness, light is needed. Today, with so much agony caused by violent conflict, war and bloodshed, the world badly needs peace and harmony. This is a great challenge for religious and spiritual leaders. Let us accept this challenge.”

– S. N. Goenka, August 29 2000, United Nations

goenkaSatya Narayan Goenka, one of the most important teachers of Buddhism meditation in our time, passed away on September 29th. He was 89 years old.

He was born in Burma as a Hindu, and as an adult become a very successful businessman. He was not happy, however. He suffered from debilitating migraine headaches brought on by stress, which he tried to treat medically with drugs. Around this time, he met Sayagyi U Ba Khin, the first Accountant-General of independent Myanmar. U Ba Khin also taught meditation, and it was from him that Goenka learned the Vipsassana method. In 1969, Goenka went to India and since then his Vipsassana teachings have spread all over the globe.

He was not an ordained teacher, but just a man who had discovered a way to calm the mind and endeavored to share it with as many people he could. He didn’t like calling what he taught Buddhism. At the same time, he didn’t try to distance himself from it, or give what he taught another name, create a new “ism.” He simply called it dhamma (dharma), or by calling it Vipassana, he was saying, it’s just meditation.

I heard Goenka speak once at UCLA. I was impressed with his secular, non-sectarian approach, and although his Buddhist orientation was the Theravada tradition, his teachings seemed firmly rooted in compassion, a real appreciation for the spirit of “practice for oneself and others.”

Vipassana means “insight,” a form of meditation said to have been taught by the historical Buddha. In most cases, there is very little difference between vipassana and anapanasati or “mindfulness of breathing.” In the West, it’s often called Insight Meditation. As far as I know, Goenka Vipassana courses are always offered free of charge. And they are usually fairly intense, 10-day affairs, in which a “Code of Disipline” is taught in tandem with the practice. I’ve never taken one of these courses, but I have a lot of respect for this approach, and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anything negative about it.

It should be noted that Goenka was one of those responsible for reintroducing Buddhist meditation to the country of its origin, India, and other Theravada countries, where it had become a lost art. One of the more significant accomplishments of Goenka’s Vipsassana movement was bring meditation to prisons. In the early 70s, Vipassana courses were taught for both police officers and inmates beginning with the Central Jail in Jaipur. Since 1997, The North American Vipassana Prison Trust (VPT) had brought Goenka Vipassana courses to dozens of prisons in the United States.

Here are some “sayings” from this important teacher:

What is Dhamma?
Dhamma is not a religion.
Dhamma is a code of conduct.
Dhamma is an ethical, moral way of life.
Dhamma is an art of living.
Dhamma is to live a happy, healthy, wholesome life.
Dhamma is to live peacefully and harmoniously within oneself and generate a peaceful and harmonious atmosphere around oneself.

“Anyone belonging to any country, creed, caste, color, gender, status, profession in society can practice Vipassana and get the same wholesome results. The tree gives sweet or bitter fruit depending on the seed that is planted, and not whether a Muslim planted it, a Hindu planted it, or whether a Christian planted it . . . as the seed is, so the fruit will be. This is the law of nature, universal and applicable to all, anywhere, at all times. So too is Vipassana, a universal technique, a practical tool enabling one to live according to the law of nature or Dhamma, and enjoy the sweet fruits of Dhamma.”

“When we practice Buddha-Dhamma, we are not getting involved in a particular sect. Rather, we are actually working to develop in ourselves the nature of a Buddha – to attain freedom from craving, aversion, delusion. And the means by which we develop this nature is the practice of sila [ethics], samadhi [meditation], panna [wisdom], which is universally acceptable to all.”