Dhamma Articles

The beginning of meditation

Why do we sit in meditation? Why do you go on meditation retreats? We do these things so that we can focus the mind and deepen our practice. We develop meditation to brighten the mind and see our true nature.

How we think?...
We all rely on our six sense organs the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind. We use them to perceive and distinguish the six sense objects of forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touch and dharmas. It is through our senses that we become attached to carving for pleasant states and develop aversion and disgust for unpleasant states.

We become led by our cravings and aversion to the various states generated by sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch and dharmas. We ceaselessly discriminate, attach and give rise to various aversions. Our minds lose the ability to settle down.

Within the mind we all have habits. When the six sense organs come into contact with the six sense objects they give rise to six sense consciousnesses. At the time that this consciousnesses is formed our habits react with these sense objects to give rise to various mental phenomena such as desire, anger, agitation, sloth, doubt and remorse. These negative thoughts become obstacles to our spiritual cultivation and meditation.

In a meditation hall the six senses are easy to watch over and protect for there are very few stimuli compared to the secular world. There are five hindrances, five desires and other afflictions that impede meditation that we must learn to let go of. Only by turning away from the hindrances can we cultivate meditative concentration, brighten the mind and see our nature.

There are many methods skillful means, techniques and theories to help develop our meditation. During a meditation retreat, the monastic leading the retreat will provide the participants with spiritual guidance. The chance to enter a meditation hall is a rare opportunity, so we should approach it joyfully and with gratitude.

There is no need to be anxious or feel driven to attain some level of realization. Meditation practice comes one step at a time. Those who practice meditation should put their worries aside and their minds & bodies at ease. In this way we can better focus our attention and skillfully respond to the environment.

When participating in a meditation retreat, one should keep the following verse in mind. “The five hindrances and the five desires. Turn away from them completely. One can then brighten the mind. See one’s nature and give rise to joy”

Mental habits…
We all have many habits. They affect the way we act, the way we speak and even the way we think' An ordinary person cannot help but fulfill their habits for they have not yet attained control over them. This is not to say that nothing can be done about false, illusory thinking. There are ways that we can gradually reduce illusory thinking so that in the end we can put a stop to it entirely.

The mind is full of thoughts all the time so much so that it is hard to know exactly when it became so cluttered. The Buddha called this state “Ignorance” At first, we are all like this.

Consider the sky as an example it does not matter if the sky is covered by white clouds or dark clouds the space exists just as it is. In fact, the Buddha said the same of all the four great elements earth, water, fire and wind each have always existed just as are.

Just like we don’t know when the white and dark clouds in the sky first took shape, we do not know when our thoughts and beliefs were first formed. Once illusory thoughts are present we mistake what is false to be true and such thoughts manifest as unwholesome actions in body, speech and mind.

We become attached to our incorrect views. These attachments to our viewpoints can lead to habits in our body, speech and thoughts. These acts build upon each other, furthering our deluded thinking and meaningless behaviors, life after life, leaving marks upon our alaya consciousness.

Alaya consciousness…
Whether we act in a way that is wholesome or unwholesome pleasant or painful, everything we do becomes part of our memories. For example, when we speak whether we speak wholesome words or unwholesome words, pleasant or painful all that we say becomes a part of our memories. This is natural. For each thought that we have whether pure or impure this too becomes part of our memories.

When a particular action is occurring, be it body, speech or mind it is manifest it’s happening right now. After the action ceases it becomes a sort of energy, the same way that boiling liquid water becomes vapor. Past actions may no longer be visible, but they still exist.

Whatever actions we manifest eventually cease and change from to be memories. As our many actions permeate the alaya consciousness, they from our habits and tendencies. Our habits too are a kind of energy that provides momentum for our actions.

If we were to use modern language to describe the alaya consciousness, we would call it “memory”. Whatever is most pervasive in our memories will manifest the most often, such as in our dreams.

The eight consciousness’s

In Buddhism, the conscious experience is divided and analyzed into several different parts so that the function of each can be better understood. The consciousnessesonly school of Buddhism traditionally divides consciousnesses into eight different types of consciousnesses. Those are…

01 - Eye consciousness. 02 - Ear consciousness. 03 - Nose consciousness. 04 - Tongue consciousness. 05 - Body consciousness. 06 - Mind consciousness. 07 - Manas consciousness. 08 - Alaya consciousness.

The first five consciousnesses arise when sense organs make contact with sense objects, creating our knowledge of the phenomenal world. The mind consciousness distinguishes and perceives the information arising from the sense consciousness.

The seventh or manas consciousness is the part of our mental faculty that clings to the concept of an independent separate self and influences our decision making to serve and protect the self. The eighth or alaya consciousness functions as a “storehouse” containing all of the latent karma of our many, many past lives.

Our memories help drive our decisions. If there is a person who constantly surfaces in your memory, you are likely to seek that person out. If you constantly think of an act, you will often commit the act. The same is true for everything we think about from the foods we like to eat to the clothes we like to wear. This is how powerful the influence of memory can be.

Now we can see how our way of thinking is produced by our behavior. Every time we act, we strengthen that act in our alaya consciousness. Lives after life, from the distant past until now, thoughts are added to this consciousness. Many of our present actions derive from the thoughts present in our consciousness.

When we make contact with the sense objects, we search our alaya consciousness for memories. If we find memories of sense objects that are similar or identical to what we are presently encountering we become very pleased.

For example, when we see someone, we will think, “Hmm… haven’t seen her before? Oh right. I remember now. That’s how I know her” Just like that, we start to favor that person. The same applies to objects as well.

We can store limitless memories within our alaya consciousness. As we encounter sense objects through our six sense organs we compare our experiences with our memories, developing preferences, attachments and desires. What we don’t recognize we often reject, attack and destroy.

As the six sense objects we develop greed, anger and ignorance in our bodies, speech and minds. All of this becomes part of our memories and it is the memories of our most prevalent actions which guide us to the next life.

Rebirth of Consciousness

During rebirth, life arises in a new body. Though it sits in its mother’s womb, a fetus’s dispositions, appearance and health are not given by its mother. These qualities and traits are determined by the most powerful memories from its previous lives. A being who has generally made others happy and given them pleasure will be become a well formed child.

They will be born loveable, with a beautiful appearance and have good affinities with others. If a being has often provoked the anger of others and brought people unease and suffering they will have poor affinity with others and hideous appearance.

Aside from determining the qualities of a person’s body, appearance, health and wealth, memories from previous lives also affect the habits we have in this life. As new lives develop, so too do old habits. Memories from previous lives play the most powerful role in determining what sort of job a person will like after they grow up, what sort of people they will like associating with and other such matters.

In this way, our consciousness can be said to be have been built up from the results of our acts, speech and thoughts over the course of many lifetimes. They will continue to collect, leading us to our future lives and so on forever. This is a powerful force which drives the mind.

Whatever our preferences are body, speech and mind all are conditioned by the strongest habits from previous lives. Even the slightest or subtlest of previous actions don’t simply vanish. Energy cannot be destroyed. They are simply stored in our memories lifetime after lifetime.

The many habits imprinted on the alaya consciousness can appear as stray thoughts when we attempt to settle the mind. Just as trees in a forest compete for sunlight, growing as tall as possible to outdo each other, our illusory thoughts are the same. These thoughts appear rapidly one after another. From this, we can understand how thoughts produced by our bodies, speech and minds enter our alaya consciousness manifest behaviors and then become the “energy” of memory.

If we wish to follow Buddhism in our everyday life, we must cultivate morality, meditative concentration and wisdom. To respect others and not harm them we must cultivate morality. To prevent unwholesome thoughts from becoming unwholesome actions, we must cultivate meditative concentration.

To see the truth of the world and let go of illusory thoughts we must cultivate wisdom. Only by cultivating in all three areas can we benefit both ourselves and others and balance both wisdom and merit.

The cultivation of morality, meditative concentration and wisdom is essential to humanistic Buddhism. In addition, we should fulfill the perfections of diligence, patience and giving by trying our best to give sentient beings material goods, giving them fearlessness and giving them Buddhist teachings.

Most Venerable Hsin Ting Thero
The sixth-term abbot and Former Director of Fo Guang Shan Temple in Taiwan
President of Buddha's Light International Association

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