One-pointedly Spontaneously Without Effort

Mifune as Musashi carving a statue of Kannon in Samurai III

Over the weekend I watched the “Samurai trilogy,” starring Toshiro Mifune as Japan’s legendary swordsman, artist, and philosopher, Miyamoto Musashi. The films were made in the mid-1950’s and based on the epic novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa, which has often been compared with Gone With The Wind. Filmed in beautiful, vibrant color, the trilogy is about dueling, of course, but it’s also the story of the two women who love Musashi, and, about the samurai’s journey to awakening. Possessing unbelievable skill as a swordsman, Musashi transforms himself from a cold-hearted killing machine to a man who comes to realize spiritual truth and what it takes to tread the path of the warrior.

In Gorin no sho (“The Book of Five Rings”) Musashi wrote that he engaged in sixty duels without suffering defeat once, and this is probably true, as he was not known to be a man who bragged or exaggerated. I’ve written about Musashi a few times before on the blog, here and here. His book is a manual that explains his philosophy of heiho or martial strategy, and this is a philosophy that has applications in many areas of life beyond swordsmanship, not the least of which is meditation.

In the chapter called the “Water Scroll,” he writes,

In the world of martial strategy you must maintain a normal, everyday mental attitude at all times. Whether it is just an ordinary day or whether you are in a combat situation, your mental attitude should in essence be the same . . . When you are physically calm you must be mentally alert; conversely, when you are physically active, maintain a serene state of mind . . . Be attentive at all times to all things without being overly anxious.”

Interestingly, I ran across something by Alan Watts yesterday that spoke of this same thing in slightly different terms. It’s from a talk he gave titled “Don’t be alert,”:

When they teach you in Japanese Zen how to use a sword. The first thing the teacher says to the student is, ‘Now, if you’re going to be a good soldier, you’ve got to be alert constantly because you never know where the attack’s going to come from. Now, you know what happens when you try to be on the alert. You think about being alert and then you’re a hopeless prey to the enemy because you’re not alert. You’re thinking about being alert. You must be simply awake and relaxed. And then all your nerve ends are working. And wherever the attack comes from, you’re ready . . .

So, in the same way, all this applies to yoga. You can be watchful. You can be watchful. You can be concentrated. You can be alert. But all that will ever teach you is what not to do. How not to use the mind. Because it will get you into deeper and deeper and deeper binds . . .  And, when you find out, you see, there isn’t any way of forcing it”

This is close to what I meant when I recently wrote that in mindfulness you should be mindful of the breath but sort of un-mindful of everything else, and I think that is true regardless of how one approaches it. The essence of mindfulness meditation is in letting go and that’s why the breath is the perfect object for meditation. The breath is completely natural and when we let go, we can fall into the rhythm of breath and flow with it.

To borrow a couple of terms from Geshe Sopa*, we can classify meditation into two broad categories, “fixative” and “analytic.” Mindfulness falls under fixative, and in this way is closely connected with samatha (calming), because the purpose is mental stabilization using an object, the breath, and as Geshe Sopa adds, remaining “upon [the] object one-pointedly spontaneously without effort (nabhisamskara).”

That’s how I was taught to meditate, to focus on the breath without effort, without forcing it. If the purpose of mindfulness meditation is metal stabilization or tranquility of mind, it seems counter-productive to chase after trance states or try to qualify and examine various objects, thoughts or feelings. Why use this meditation method as a stake to keep the monkey that is our mind from roaming, if all we are going to do is give him a long tether?

I feel that the purpose of this meditation is to keep thoughts to the barest minimum possible. Not qualifying or judging whether the breaths are long or short, or whether feelings are good or bad, but just being aware that we are breathing and we are feeling.

However, this is just one way to consider mindfulness meditation. It’s the way I was taught by Buddhist monks and priests, and it differs somewhat from what is taught in the Anapanasati and Satipatthana Suttas, and in books.

By simply following or counting the breath, we are using it to bring our body and mind together, and really, inviting the entire universe into our consciousness without forcing anything, by one-pointed awareness of this microcosm of life, the breath. Or as Watts quotes Krishnamurti, “All you can do is to be aware of yourself as you are without judgment. See what is.”

In my Niten-Ichi-ryu [Two-Heavens-As-One school], there are no basic or advanced techniques in sword usage, there is no special teaching or secret related to the positions of holding the sword. The only important thing is that one sincerely pursues the Way of martial strategy in order to attain its principle.”

Miyamoto Musashi – May 12, 1645

*”Samathavipasyanayuganaddha: The Two Leading Principles of Buddhist Meditation”, Mahayana Buddhist Meditation, edited by Minoru Kiyota, University press of Hawaii, 1978

Quotations from “The Book of Five Rings”: A Way to Victory, translation and commentary by Hidy Ochiai, The Overlook Press, 2001


Outlines of Buddhist Meditation Part 1

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of meditation to the practice of Buddhism. It is the practice of Buddhism. In this presentation, the subject is only silent meditation. However, I think chanting can be considered a way of meditation, even though the Buddha did not encourage his followers in the practice of mantras, parittas (chanting verses and sutras for protection), or sutra recitation for devotion. It is meditation in the traditional sense that has always been the most common, and perhaps crucial, element in Buddha-dharma. Most of the definitions here are from Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism, edited by Peter Gregory.

The Victory of Buddha by Abanindranath Tagore*

Each school or tradition of Buddhism makes exclusive claims about their own philosophy or practice. These claims must be taken with a large grain of salt. For instance, you might hear someone say, “The Buddha taught Zen.” That’s true to the extent that zen means meditation. But if one is implying that the Buddha taught Zen philosophy or “Zen meditation,” that’s stretching it a bit too much. You might  hear someone else claim that Buddha taught samatha-vipassana, or “insight meditation.” That’s not quite the case either.

Samatha-vipassana is meditation based on the jhanas (deep mental states or meditative absorptions). There are samatha jhanas and vipassana jhanas, with some difference in how each is approached. There are only occasional references to samatha and vipassana in the early sutras, and almost always they are mentioned together, indicating that these were not intended to be separate practices.

While there is some similarity between the four jhanas and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, jhanas are not mentioned in the oldest “scriptures” nor in the two most important meditation texts of early Buddhism, Anapanasati Sutta (“Discourse on the Mindfulness of Breath”) and Satipatthana Sutta (“The Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness”). This has led some to believe they are later additions to Buddhist practice. Thich Nhat Hanh says that “from my own research, it seems the Four Jhanas . . . were not introduced into Buddhism until one hundred years after the Buddha’s passing.” I suspect this is the case for samatha-vipassana, too.

Since the Buddhist sutras are not historical documents, it is impossible to prove anything about what the Buddha may have taught. Nonetheless, my feeling is that the practice taught in the earliest days of Buddhism was sati, or mindfulness, and certainly mindfulness is the starting point for most all of the various forms of Buddhist meditation that followed.

Sati (Sanskrit: smrti) originally meant “memory”, specifically memorizing Vedic scriptures. The Buddha used it in the context of “awareness.” Mindfulness meditation consists of watching the breath, cultivating mindfulness or attention to the present moment.

It seems that the Buddha never used any of the terms usually translated as “meditation.” In addition to sati, the other term used most frequently in the early sutras is bhavana, meaning, “to be, become; cultivate, develop, increase; to produce; to practice.” Bhavana is a broad term that according to Alan Sponberg, in TOCM, “can refer to any form of spiritual cultivation or practice.” However, as Walpola Rahula, in What the Buddha Taught, points out, “The word meditation is a very poor substitute for the original term bhavana, which . . .  properly speaking, is mental culture in the full sense of the term.”

Here are several other terms frequently used in discussions on Buddhist meditation:

Samatha-vipassana – “concentration and insight”, these are actually two separate forms of meditation, which were rarely practiced in tandem until the Chinese T’ien-t’ai school. The Theravada school largely contends that samatha is dispensable. Samatha means “calming” or “tranquility,” while vipassana is “insight” or “clear-seeing.” In Chinese, samatha-vipassana is rendered as chih-kuan, which T’ien-t’ai founder Chih-i described as “stopping and seeing.” In Japanese, it is shikan.

Samadhi – a term commonly translated as “meditation.” Sponberg, says, “With the etymological sense of ‘bringing or putting together,’ this term most often refers to a state of mental concentration, usually the result of some particular technique or practice.”

Dhyana – a Sanskrit term that corresponds to the Pali jhana, “to think closely [upon an object].” Dhyana is also frequently used to mean “meditation,” and in Chinese it is translated as ch’an, and in Japanese, zen.

Basic Zen meditation (Jp. zazen) commonly begins with the practice mindfulness of breath (more about Zen in the next post). Modern vipassana or “insight meditation” is “based on the traditional practice of mindfulness (P. sati) as taught in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta” (Gregory). The Satipatthana Sutta and the Mahasatipatthana Sutta explain how to practice mindfulness using points other than the breath as objects of meditation (the body, sensations, the mind, etc.)

Of the original 13 schools of Buddhism, Theravada is the only one alive today. I could be wrong but I believe that the first non-sutra meditation instructions in this tradition were those produced in the 4th or 5th Century by Buddhaghosa, who wrote Visuddhimagga or “The Path of Purification” which is not only a comprehensive meditation manual but also an in-depth treatise on the whole of Theravada doctrine.

Anagarika Dharmapala

Over the centuries, meditation became a lost art in the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia. As I recall the story told by Rick Fields in his book, How The Swans Came To The Lake, in the late 1800’s, the Sri Lankan born bhikkhu Anagarika Dharmapala (David Hewavitarne) traveled throughout India, Sri Lanka, and Burma and he could not find one Buddhist who could teach him how to practice meditation. Eventually, he had to rely on the Visuddhimagga and a 17th or 18th century meditation manual translated into English as Manual of a Mystic in 1906 by F.L. Woodward.

The revival of meditation in the Theravada tradition didn’t get started until the latter half of the last century, through the efforts of Mahasi Sayadaw and S. N. Goenka in Burma, along with their Western followers, and this is more or less the Insight Meditation (Vipassana) movement of today.

The tradition of meditation has remained strong in the Mahayana countries of China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan, and that will be the focus of the next post. I should probably remind readers that in the history of Buddhist meditation, until recent years, it was primarily the ordained members of the Sangha who practiced and not the lay members, due to social, economic, and educational reasons.

As the title states this is just a brief overview. I am more than willing to stand corrected on anything I’ve written, however I think what I’ve shared here is largely accurate. And I hope there are some people who will find it helpful.

I’m going to add a page with some simple instructions on Mindfulness meditation. So, those of you who would interested in that, please check back.

*Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. This painting was used as the frontispiece to ‘Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists’ by Sister Nivedita and Ananda Coomaraswamy, 1st edition, 1913


The Wisdom of Waiting, The Dharma of Delay

Earlier this week, on one of the morning news shows, I caught an interview with Frank Partnoy, the George E. Barrett Professor of Law and Finance at the University of San Diego School of Law. He’s the author of a couple of books on modern finance, F.I.A.S.C.O.: Blood in the Water on Wall Street and Infectious Greed: How Deceit and Risk Corrupted the Financial Markets. He has a new one out and that’s what he was promoting the other day.

It’s called Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. In it Partnoy argues that we make make decisions too quickly and that we would benefit from taking things slower and delaying many of our decisions. One of the examples he gave in the TV interview was that of great tennis players who delay hitting the ball until the last possible fraction of a second.

According to his website,

Frank Partnoy provides a necessary rebuttal to the gurus of “go with your gut.” He shows that decisions of all kinds, whether “snap” or long-term strategic, benefit from being made at the last possible moment. The art of knowing how long you can afford to delay before committing is at the heart of many a great decision—whether in a corporate takeover or a marriage proposal.”

What he’s advocating here is a “mindfulness” approach to making choices, without the meditation element. Although I don’t suppose he would be against combining the “art of delay” with meditation. You could also call Partnoy’s concept of delaying as informed or enlightened procrastination, a notion which is at the heart of one of the oldest books in the world, Tao Te Ching. In the Gia-fu Feng and Jane English translation, we find these passages:


Who can wait quietly while the mud settles?
Who can remain still until the moment of action?
Observers of the Tao do not seek fulfillment.
Not seeking fulfillment, they are not swayed by desire for change.


Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone . . .


A truly good man does nothing,
Yet leaves nothing undone.
A foolish man is always doing,
Yet much remains to be done.


Practice non-action.
Work without doing.

Lao Tzu’s take on delaying is called wu-wei or non-action. But it’s not simply inaction, rather it’s taking natural action. Wu-wei is action that is pliable, responsible, and mindful.  One of the reasons we practice meditation is so that we can train our minds to think more deliberately and not to long for things. It is that longing, that need to have and have immediately is what often results in the bad decision-making that both Lao Tzu and Frank Partnoy are trying to help us correct.

The Taoist sage, Chuang Tzu explained wu-wei with the story of an archer who at first would draw and fire the bow in a relaxed, natural way, and was unconcerned with whether or not the target was hit (which it was every time). But when the archer became fixated on winning a prize, the need to hit the target and have the prize got in the way and caused the archer to fail. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have target or goals, but merely that there is another way, perhaps a better way to hit the bullseye, to accomplish the goal.

I haven’t read Partnoy’s book, but I sure appreciate his message about slowing down, taking our time, using the “art and science” of delaying to make better decisions in every area of our life. It not only reminds me of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu and the Buddha’s mindfulness, but also of an earlier time when we used talk about “stopping to smell the roses,” and Paul Simon sang “slow down, you move too fast, you’ve got to make the morning last.”  I’ve often found the greatest truths are the simplest ones. They may sound sophomoric or cheesy when you first hear them, but eventually you no longer try to filter them, and when they sink in, you come to realize the rightness in their uncomplicated expression.

On a golden autumn
day returning
Where each moment
never is the same
Sometimes pure joy it
comes with patience
When Im waiting on,
waiting game
When Im waiting on,
waiting game

– Van Morrison


Mindfulness is just a four-letter word

Mindfulness is the English word most often used for the Pali term sati. Originally, it was used by Brahmans, meaning “memory”, in the sense of memorizing Vedic scriptures. In order to retain large amounts of material, one needed to have clarity of mind, a keen ability to focus, an enhanced quality of attentiveness. The Buddha adopted this Brahmanical term, using sati to refer to both “remembering” and presence of mind in meditation.

In this passage from Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s translation of Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga or “The Path of Purification”, composed in the 5th century and the first comprehensive manual on Theravada meditation, sati is used in the first context in this passage:

Now as to mindful and fully aware: here, he remembers (sarati), thus he is mindful (sata); He has full-awareness (samapajanati), thus he is fully aware (sampajana). This is mindfulness and full-awareness stated as personal attributes. Herein, mindfulness has the characteristic of remembering. Its function is not to forget. It is manifested as guarding.”

Elsewhere in this same work, sati is used in the context of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (of the body, of feelings, of consciousness, of mental objects):

And in some instances by the Foundations of Mindfulness, etc., accordingly as it is said: ‘Bhikkhus, this path is the only ‘way for the purification of beings, . . . for the realization of ‘nibanna, that is to say, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ . . .

And further on, Buddhaghosa also refers to sati in the sense of a specific meditation practice:

Mindfulness of breathing should be developed for the purpose of eliminating the conceit ‘I am.’

So here we have a several different meanings or connotations of the same word in the same work, and when reading the first passage we notice that there are a number of other words or terms that seem to be interchangeable, having essentially the same meaning. We might wonder how does mindfulness differ from full-awareness? How is sata related to sati? This I think points to the difficulty of trying to parse the English words we use for Buddhist terms. Bhikkhu Nanamoli, in his introduction to “The Path of Purification,” describes at length the linguistic, epistemological, and even psychological problems of translation, noting for instance, that the single English word “desire” has been used “as a translation of sixteen distinct Pali words.”

In my opinion, playing semantics with Asian Buddhist terms and the various English words we use as translations is like stepping into a muddy swamp. If you can avoid it, you’re much better off.

Yet, some folks just can’t seem to help themselves. Believe it or not, “mindfulness” is a rather controversial word in Buddhism these days. It seems some people object to mindfulness. They say it’s been over-used, it’s just a buzz-word, a cliché, that it points to a watered-down form of Buddhist practice, it’s nothing more than a balm, an elixir, a feel-good term. What is never entirely clear to me is whether these critics merely object to the word or if they also object to the practice, or both.

I don’t have a problem with such criticism because they are attacking a sacred cow – I think I’ve said before there are no sacred cows on this blog – but rather, I feel it is just nit-picking which doesn’t really contribute much. Certainly, there are some who overuse and abuse the term, and in the hands of a few of them, “mindfulness” has become a marketing strategy. But I think they are in the minority overall, and as the old adage goes, a few rotten apples does not spoil the whole bunch.

Mindfulness is just a word, a sign. Other words like awareness, attentiveness, or thoughtfulness work, but perhaps not as well. Not to mention that there’s probably someone, somewhere who’d have an objection to any word that became the standard.

The most common use of “mindfulness” is in reference to the meditation practice taught by the Buddha. I believe I am correct in saying that the instructions attributed to the Buddha about this practice are the first meditation instructions recorded in history. We find them in the Anapanasati Sutra or the “Discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing.”

I often like to quote Thich Nhat Hanh: “We do not need to search for anything more. We only need to practice the simple exercises proposed by the Buddha . . .” I think this is true to some extent. While there are many other forms of Buddhist meditation, this is the foundation, the starting point. No matter what else I do, I always return to “mindfulness” at some point. I try to remember the maxim of one on my teachers, “Always go back to the basics.”

But the real heart of mindfulness, in all its different senses, is found in daily life. We want to learn to do things with better attention and focus, teach ourselves how to avoid the bad habit of doing one thing while thinking of something else. By merely practicing anapanasati, we can become more observant, and learn how not to taint what we observe with judgments, preferences, or prejudices. We train ourselves to stay calm in situations that tend to provoke irritation or anger. We learn how to deal more effectively with our problems, worries and anxieties. The list goes on and on.

The benefits derived from “mindfulness” practice are not easily obtained. It requires effort, and it can be hard, even painful at times. They are not “gifts”, unless you consider them as gifts you give to yourself. When we say that mindfulness can be virtually any activity whatsoever, we mean we can learn to apply mental disciple to almost any situation. We’re trying to stop reacting to things so mindlessly. And we certainly don’t mean that mindfulness itself accomplishes anything. We do it. This is jiriki we’re talking about. Self-power. “Mindfulness” only works for us when we make it work.

Another quote I probably use too often is from Robert Thurman, who once said, “Buddhism is just a bunch of tools.” A handyman has various tools and they have various names. It cuts down on confusion. Makes it easier to identify a tool when you need one handed to you. We have to do the same thing in Buddhism. Concern about the names we give the tools is missing the point, I think. Isn’t the function of each tool far more important?

The sati arisen inspired by breathing (anapana) is “mindfulness of breathing.” This is a term for sati that has as its object the sign of in-breaths and out-breaths. The recollection arisen inspired by peace is the ‘recollection of peace.” This is a term for sati that has as its object the stilling of all suffering.”



Natural Concept: The Way of Wu-wei

The other day I quoted the Tao Te Ching: “By practicing doing nothing/Everything is in harmony.” This refers to the concept of wu-wei or non-action.

When we talk about non-action, it doesn’t mean inaction. Wu-wei means natural action.

Elsewhere in the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says “Nature uses few words.”

Of wu-wei, Wang Bi (226—249 CE), the famous interpreter of the classical Chinese texts, wrote,

The sage understands Nature perfectly. Therefore he goes along with [all things] but takes no unnatural action. He is in harmony with them but does not impose anything on them. He removes their delusions and eliminates their doubts. Hence, the people’s minds are not confused and things are contented with their own nature.

In Taoism, the sage is an ideal, representing the ultimate in human aspiration. The sage is like a buddha or bodhisattva, steeped in wisdom, guiding others. Because the sage is in harmony with the rhythm of life, the action he or she takes is not forced. In fact it seems effortless because less exertion is required. Tai Chi master Gary Khor calls wu-wei “relaxed action.”

Chinese characters for "Wu-wei"

Non-action is related to mindfulness. It is not as if we are suddenly “in harmony” with nature, as though someone had pulled a switch and voila! Wu-wei flows from mindfulness because it is actually a consciousness of harmony. Quieting the mind relaxes the body and spirit and we become more aware of life’s natural rhythms.

In terms of Buddhism, an attribute of awareness is understanding our part in the interdependency of all things. As all things are originally harmonious and natural owning to their ultimate oneness, practice of mindfulness and wu-wei teach us the way to take the right action at the right time.

The action of wu-wei is also the action of creative insight. The I Ching says “The creative is successful, advancing through correctness”.

More about the I Ching and creativity in an upcoming post.