Mindfulness: How Shall We Live?

“What am I doing now? Does it lead to Dhukkha [suffering for myself and others] or does it lead away from it?” –– Nayanaponika Thera

I recently had the good fortune to sit a ten-day retreat with the Venerable Analayo at Spirit Rock Center in California. He is a fine, strong, and creative teacher who has spent much of the last twenty years researching, practicing and integrating the Buddha’s teachings called Satipatthana. These teachings describe the cultivation of mindfulness in four particular areas of our lives: body, feelings, mind, and the stabilization of inherent mental factors which can lead to a liberated and free mind. The above quote, from Nyanaponika Thera, was discovered by Ven. Analayo by chance, on a slip of paper written in his native German language; it has been the guidepost for his exploration.

On the first day of our ten days, Ven. Analayo reminded us that what would be most important for us in relation to the retreat was not any of the deep states of quiet or the insights we might have during the time of intense practice; what would matter most was going to be how the practice at Spirit Rock effected us as we returned to our ordinary lives: how it would change our behavior and our relationships in the world.

Integral to this transformation was his simple, oft-repeated statement: “First awareness, then action.” We spent the days, from 6 a.m. through 9 p.m. and beyond, in formal, guided meditation practice, stabilizing and refining the full-bodied awareness called mindfulness. “Mindfulness is the great protection” –– both for ourselves and for those we share the world with.

While in his twenties, Ven. Analayo had been studying martial arts in Germany when his teacher told him to meditate. Though initially resistant, he did so and was amazed to find it had a profound softening effect on his hard-to-control temper. On the basis of this powerful experience, he resolved to become a meditator and went to Thailand to a cave where he meditated alone for two years. He said that he had no idea what he was doing. Then, somehow, he came across The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, a book on Satipatthana by Nyanaponika Thera, a German Buddhist monk living in Sri Lanka. The frame it gave to his understanding helped him immensely, so he resolved to go immediately to Sri Lanka and study with Nyanaponika Thera.

However, upon arriving in the airport in Sri Lanka and asking directions to Nyanaponika Thera’s monastery, he was told that this great teacher had died six days earlier. He went to the monastery anyway. There he met Bhikkhu Bodhi, who was about to leave to go to a conference. He asked Ven. Analayo, who was not yet an fully ordained monk, to oversee the monastery while he was away. A few days later Ven. Analayo was sitting at Nyanaponika Thera’s desk examining his various piles of notes and his book-in-progress, which Bhikkhu Bodhi was in the process of sorting through. All of these particular notes were written in English: Bhikkhu Bodhi was not able to read German. Then Ven. Analayo noticed that there was a slip of paper sticking out slightly from under the desk blotter. He pulled it out and read in German (the native language he shared with Nyanaponika Thera): “What am I doing now? Does it lead to Dukkha or does it lead away from it?” Ven. Analayo knew this was his teacher’s most fundamental direct guidance to him.

At the end of the recent retreat with Ven. Analayo in California, which provided a deep and profound experience of embodied mindfulness for all one hundred of us, assistant teacher Shaila Catherine told us that her answer to the question of how to bring our practice home with us was simply to be generous, to live a virtuous life, and to follow the five Buddhist training precepts. Phillip Moffitt, the other teacher assisting Ven. Analayo, advised us to attend to our feelings and be mindful, patient, and careful as we reentered our busy lives and complex relationships. A Spirit Rock staff member who gave the dana talk told us a moving story about how his regular practice was stagnating until he began to help support a small group of monks who lived near him. His extension of generosity to them paralleled a deep quieting that began to arise in his meditations.

Our hearts and minds are softened and made more malleable, less rigid, by adhering to the four fundamental practices given by the Buddha to Yasa, the first lay person to come to him with a request to join the order of monks. Yasa was the favored son of a very wealthy family, owners of three palaces, one for each of the Indian seasons. He wore golden shoes and lived in opulence. His story is that one morning after a particularly lavish party, he stumbled though a mass of men and women who had passed out from drink and sensual indulgence. He was disgusted and found his way to the Buddha, who was sitting peacefully under a tree, and said, “It is oppressive; it is a calamity; and it is dangerous.” The Buddha responded, “It is not oppressive; it is not a calamity; it is not dangerous.” He then taught for the first time what is called “the gradual discourse,” which consists of four parts: generosity (dana); virtue (sila); a description of what is divine or celestial or wise; and the vanity and danger of sense desires with the implications of relinquishment. It is said that Yasa’s heart softened and opened to these words, at which point the Buddha went on to teach him “those things unique to the Buddhist path” –– mindfulness and the Four Noble Truths.

“First be aware; then act.” Mindfulness and wise action support and reinforce one another. They make our world safe, and they help our practice deepen.

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