This is Post 22 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found by clicking here.
In very general terms, the classic Zen meditation practice of Zazen, or ‘Just Sitting’, is usually thought of as a meditation that takes the body as a whole, and its environment, as the ‘object’ of the meditation practice. For those that have not experienced the practice, it can be difficult to understand how this seemingly diffuse and unfocused approach to meditation could, in a very natural and effortless way, give rise to strong states of somatic integration, where it appears that Consciousness is the unifying power that is producing the state of effortless concentration. I could be argued that the ‘object’ of attention in Zazen practice, if there is one, is Consciousness itself – the field of Consciousness in which all our experiencing is happening; and Consciousness as it is experienced in the field of the body. Zazen therefore, is a prime example of the practice of ‘resting as Consciousness’.
Sympathetic Joy – the Zen of Embodied Consciousness
In the last few posts I have reflecting in different ways on the brahmavihāras or muditā, which is usually translated as Sympathetic Joy. In the text of these articles, I have mostly been translating muditā as Appreciative Joy, which I prefer. I can see that the translation of muditā as Sympathetic Joy is in some ways more appropriate when we are describing the extraverted aspect of muditā – our relational response to the wellbeing or achievement of another – but when talking about our relationship to our own experience, Appreciative Joy is definitely more appropriate.
I am aware that Zen Buddhism has different associations for different people, and different schools of Zen have different emphases. In this instance, I am making reference to Zen to highlight an approach to meditation practice that is characterised by a sense of embodiment, expansiveness, appreciation, contentment and gratitude, and a deep and fearless willingness to fully inhabit the body and the sensory world as Consciousness – attitudes that are characteristic, in my view, of Appreciative Joy.
While all of the brahmavihāras can spontaneously arise during Zazen meditation, but I believe the practice has this especially close connection with muditā. This is because muditā, or Appreciative Joy, is the brahmavihāra that arises in connection with the skandha of vedanā – the brahmavihāra which arises as our relationship with the vedanā skandha begins to take on a less personal and more universal character. There is a natural refinement of our relationship with our internal sensory experience as we learn to dis-identify from our experience, while simultaneously recognising our experience as ’embodied Consciousness’ – and this more refined and objective experience of vedanā is called muditā, or Appreciative Joy.
Dhyāna: Resting as Consciousness to achieve Somatic Integration
Zen means meditation. The word Zen is a transliteration, into Japanese, of the Chinese word ‘Chan’, which in turn comes from the Sanskrit word dhyāna, which is usually rendered, somewhat confusingly, as ‘concentration’. Interestingly the word dhyāna, as well as denoting the practice or activity of meditative concentration, is also used to describe the various refined and blissful states of somatic integration that are achieved through meditation practice, which are collectively called the dhyānas.
This use of the same word (dhyāna) for both the practice of somatic integration, and the resultant states of somatic integration, highlights I believe, the fact that these blissful states of somatic integration were commonplace in the Buddha’s community, and regarded as integral to meditation practice rather than special states that were only occasionally encountered. I find myself critical the unfortunate tendency of many writers and teachers to render the Buddha’s teachings in dualistic terms. Because of this, I prefer a more explanatory translation of dhyāna, which could be described much more fully, but also concisely, as the meditative practice of resting as Consciousness.
Ethical States are Blissful States are Ethical States
Importantly, these integrated and blissful states, are understood to arise from ethical thought, speech and action. Indeed Buddhist tradition tells us that their are numerous Deva Realms – parallel worlds inhabited by beings called devas – beings who dwell permanently in the blissful dhyāna states as a result of previous lifetimes of thought, speech and action that is kind, generous, and ethical
The connection between the bliss of the dhyānas and ethical thought, speech and action, is especially clear when we practice the brahmavihāras meditation-cycle. The brahmavihāras are the ethical attitudes that are inherent in Consciousness – Equanimity, Appreciative Joy, Loving-Kindness, and Compassion. When we use the brahmavihāras as a framework for our meditative self-inquiry, it quickly becomes abundantly clear to us that ethical attitudes give rise to states of somatic integration and well-being.
The brahmavihāras meditation-cycle approach to meditation is immediately rewarding, both in the consistent experience of somatic integration that is experienced in doing the practice, and also in the virtuous circle it immediately creates between your inner and outer life. As we practice we become very keenly aware that the bodily-felt experience of somatic integration, which arises through resting as Consciousness, gives us a hugely enhanced capacity to think, speak, and act ethically – and to live harmoniously with our fellow human beings. And this of course feeds back as we find ourselves already at ease, and in a more integrated state – before we even sit down on our meditation cushion.
Zen Ethics / Zen Aesthetics / Zen Creativity
Many people associate Zen with a distinctive form of Japanese visual aesthetic in architecture and design – especially garden design. Characteristic of Zen style are: great refinement of craftsmanship without pretence; a genuine enjoyment of simplicity; a recognition of the beauty of natural, sustainable materials and technologies; a harmony of natural features (trees, watercourses, rocks, etc.) and man-made features (buildings, paths, pools, bridges, etc.) in the landscape; and a deep appreciation of the soulful beauty of rustic, flawed, weathered, or old, objects.
Appreciative Joy, the attitude of Consciousness, which I have been exploring in the last few posts is in many respects a reflection of this Zen sensibility. At best the Zen aesthetic causes us to slow down and drop into a state of deep appreciation and gratitude. By highlighting the simplicity and impermanence of the all things in our natural world, we are thrown back into an awareness of the embodied Consciousness that is experiencing – and that Consciousness then animates our world, making every moment precious, and every object rich with meaning, value, and subtle beauty – an experience of Appreciative Joy.
Zen therefore, while culturally Japanese, has much to teach us about living well in the Human Realm – the realm of Sensation. While Appreciative Joy is also an interpersonal response to the skills, qualities and creativity of others, it is also an attitude of Consciousness, and a way of being, living and creating. As we engage in self-inquiry, and reflect on our familiar activities from a spiritual point of view – from the point of view of Consciousness – we naturally aspire to create a reflection in the outer world, of the harmony, naturalness and beauty that we experience inwardly in our deepest moments of mind-body integration.
How did the Buddha teach meditation?
Unfortunately we do not know how the Buddha taught meditation, so we are forced to read the early Buddhist texts like an imaginative archaeologist piecing together fragments of information. We can only make sense of the fragments by making reference to our own meditative explorations and self-inquiry – being very careful to avoid the prejudice of our own dualistic and egoic assumptions.
We also need to be wary and discerning in regard to those pundits who teach out of their identification with a particular tradition rather than out of their experience – so that they deliver only a superficial and formulaic analysis of the Buddha’s teaching. In my experience, the best teachers are those who teach directly from their own experience, and in a very intimate way – sharing from their own self-inquiry.
‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ – a Very Advanced Practice
Many people believe that the Buddha’s main approach to meditation was through the ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ practice, and many regard it is the primary foundation practice for those who wish to practice Mindfulness in daily life. While it is a practice that I use daily, as part of my brahmavihāras practice, I find myself questioning some of the prevailing assumptions about Mindfulness of Breathing. I have come to think of it as a difficult practice for the beginner – one which people can very easily practice incorrectly, and in a way which affirms rather than releases our egoic habits of mind. I could be argued that Mindfulness of Breathing can be counterproductive as a spiritual practice, because it tends to encourage an identification with our heroic and controlling egoic parts rather than allowing them to rest as Consciousness – as Zazen might aim to do.
It is very common for the Mindfulness of Breathing practice to become a fruitless dualistic struggle – one in which the egoic part that has identified itself as ‘the meditator’, engages in a battle of wills with other egoic parts that are resisting the heroic and controlling attitude of that dominant egoic part. Mindfulness is a very subtle spiritual practice. While Mindfulness is related the set of mental skills that psychologists speak of in term of ‘executive function’, ultimately its development also requires that we recognise and familiarise ourselves with Consciousness; and recognise that that which various cognitions, perceptions and apparent selves that arise in Consciousness, are ’empty’ or non-personal. The Mindfulness of Breathing practice should also therefore, be regarded as very advanced – a practice that should ideally be practised in the spirit of the Buddha’s non-duality teachings, and as natural extension of the practice of resting as Consciousness.
In my view, if anyone is willing to give time to exploring meditation, they would do well to start with self-inquiry practices that focus on the recognition of Consciousness, and by practising the brahmavihāras meditation-cycle to transform their surface bodies by resting receptively ‘as’ Consciousness. In my experience, this process of familiarisation is best approached in the expansive, open, receptive spirit of Zazen – only incorporating ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ into the practice once the attitude of resting as Consciousness been established. I shall be talking more about how ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ can be used at a later stage of practice, to deepen our experience of the brahmavihāras, in the later posts of the this ‘Meditation Guidance’ series.
Thwarting the Dualistic Thinking of the Egoic Mind
The Zen Buddhist tradition has given us one of our most successful approaches to meditation. It is implicitly a method for for familiarising ourselves with the experience of embodied Consciousness – Consciousness as it is felt in the body, and experienced in the world, through the internal and external aspects of the vedanā skandha, or Sensation. While the Zen tradition has many sub-schools, it can, in general, be distinguished by the directness of its engagement with Consciousness, and the Zazen practice is an expression of this. The practice is however, somewhat perplexing to the egoic and dualistic mind because, as I have mentioned above, there is no apparent focus for the egoic will.
This fundamental thwarting of the egoic mind’s desire for a dualistic framework is Zazen’s great strength, but it can make this marvellous practice difficult for most people to grasp. The brahmavihāras meditation-cycle that I am presenting in this ‘Meditation Guidance’ series, has much in common with Zazen, but the Mandala of Love framework that I am advocating aims to provide a much more detailed guide for the beginner – and a much easier way into what is essentially a Zazen-style approach.
Four Stages of Practice – Repeating the Brahmavihāras at Each Stage
In my experience, the first stage of a development process though meditation can be characterised as one of ‘Integration’ – one in which we need to rest in the field of Consciousness and allow every aspect of our personal and internal experience to be held by the benevolent attitudes which are the brahmavihāras – by Loving Kindness; by Equanimity; by Compassion; and by Appreciative Joy. If we can open ourselves to a recognition that these four are objectively present in Consciousness and always available to us, our progress is made much easier, since we are progressing by a process of Receptivity to beneficial suprapersonal energies, rather that by reliance on our own will power.
Once we have established these four ethical and relational attitudes in relationship to ourselves, we naturally start to emerge from this more introverted healing process into a second, more extraverted stage – a stage that can be characterised as one of ‘Positive Emotion’. In this second, ‘Positive Emotion’ stage, the brahmavihāras find external and more overtly relational expression and provide an energetic foundation for extraverted transformational processes and personality development in which we bring the attitudes of Loving Kindness, Equanimity, Compassion, and Appreciative Joy to our communication skills and to every aspect of our outer lives, and gain a much deeper capacity of relationship.
I believe that practicing the brahmavihāras as a repeating cycle in this way, can serve to systematically release what the Buddhist tradition calls the kleshas – the categories of energetic patterning by which our bodily sense of the momentum of the egoic mind is held in the field of the body. And by developing our familiarity with the brahmavihāras as suprapersonal energies that are inherent in Consciousness, we begin to challenge our deep-rooted habitual tendency to personalise of our experience. By this process of releasing, or progressively ’emptying out’ the kleshas, both of these first two stages create a fertile ground for the emergence of liberating insights into the impersonal nature of mind.
Indeed, if we continue to repeat the ‘Integration’ and ‘Positive Emotion’ stages these transformative insights will become increasingly frequent and will bring further changes to the character of our practice. Out of our more introverted and receptive practice of the brahmavihāras in the ‘Integration’ stage, a ‘higher octave’ of the Integration stage emerges, which may be called ‘Spiritual Death’ – a death of our habitual over-personalisation of our experience. Similarly, if we continue to practice the ‘Positive Emotion’ stage – cycling through the brahmavihāras in an extraverted way, allowing them to flow outward towards others – a powerfully transformative higher octave of this ‘Positive Emotion’ stage will emerge, which we can call the stage of ‘Spiritual Rebirth’. This ‘Spiritual Rebirth’ stage is equivalent the emergence the bodhicitta – the spontaneously altruistic and compassionate ‘Will to Enlightenment’ of Buddhist tradition.
[I feel a need to acknowledge with gratitude, that these four stages and the terms used to refer to them, are not my own; nor are they a traditional Buddhist formulation. They were first used by the Venerable Sangharakshita in a lecture series in 1978. I find them to be of enormous value in the way they seem to provide a framework for understanding the ever-deepening journey of an approach to meditation practice based on the mandala of the brahmavihāras. I should add that the interpretive reflections on the four stages are my own, and not those of Sangharakshita; nor are they an expression of the consensus within the Triratna Buddhist Community that Sangharakshita founded. Subsequent to the publication of this article, I have engaged in a more comprehensive series of articles, which explores this four-stage process in more detail. To see summaries of that series of articles click here.]
The Brahmavihāras Meditation-Cycle as Enhanced Zazen
I believe this mandala-based approach is likely to be useful even to more experienced meditation practitioners – including more experienced practitioners of Zazen who are looking for a way to deepen, and to expand their understanding of, their practice. It is probably of the nature of meditation that we can sometimes get stuck, and without appropriate input can fail to recognise where we are limiting ourselves. The brahmavihāras mandala model, which I am endeavouring to outline here, aims to provide a vision of balance in the spiritual life and of balance in our meditation practice. It is a model which has no upper limit whatsoever, and in which we are endeavouring to find reconciliation of psychological opposites at ever higher levels. The mandala model also highlights for us the fact that there is always a danger of one-sided development in the spiritual life, and that this one-sidedness can limit our ethical and relational awareness, and can limit our meditation practice, or undermine it completely.
These articles are best read in sequence. To go to the next article in the series just click the ‘Next’ button at the bottom of the page. For an overview of the sequence, with short summaries of each article, click here.