Buddhist meditation and depth psychology
Mind is the forerunner of all (evil) conditions.
Mind is their chief, and they are mind-made.
If, with an impure mind, one speaks or acts,
Then suffering follows one
Even as the cart wheel follows the hoof of the ox.
Mind is the forerunner of all (good) conditions.
Mind is their chief, and they are mind-made.
If, with a pure mind, one speaks or acts,
Then happiness follows one
Like a never-departing shadow.
These words, which are the opening lines of the Dhammapada, were
spoken by Gotama Buddha 2500 years ago. They illustrate the central
theme of Buddhist teaching, the human mind.
Buddhism is probably the least understood of all major religions.
Indeed, from an Occidental viewpoint we might well question whether it
warrants the title of religion. In the West we are accustomed to
thinking of theology in terms of God, revelation, obedience, punishment,
The themes of creation, worship, judgment, and immortality have been
major concerns in the Christian heritage and are virtually inseparable
from our concept of religion. Against such a cultural background Western
man views Buddhism and in so doing unconsciously projects his own
concepts, values and expectations. Erroneously he perceives ceremonies
and bowing as examples of worship or even idolatry.
He may extol its scientific world view or abhor and condemn its
“atheism.” The Buddha is vaguely equated with God or Jesus, and
meditation is suspected of being a hypnotic approach to mysticism or an
escape from reality.
However, such erroneous notions of the Dhamma, the teaching of the
Buddha, are not entirely the result of Western ignorance and
ethnocentrism. Before his demise the Buddha predicted that within a
thousand years his doctrine would fall into the hands of men of lesser
understanding and would thereby become corrupted and distorted. Such has
been the case throughout much, if not most, of the Orient.
Ritual has replaced self-discipline, faith has replaced insight, and
prayer has replaced understanding.
If the basis of Christianity is God, the basis of Buddhism is mind.
From the Buddhist viewpoint, mind or consciousness is the core of our
existence. Pleasure and pain, good and evil, time and space, life and
death have no meaning to us apart from our awareness of them or thoughts
Whether God exists or does not exist, whether existence is primarily
spiritual or primarily material, whether we live for a few decades or
live forever — all these matters are, in the Buddhist view, secondary to
the one empirical fact of which we do have certainty: the existence of
conscious experience as it proceeds through the course of daily living.
Therefore Buddhism focuses on the mind; for happiness and sorrow,
pleasure and pain are psychological experiences. Even such notions as
purpose, value, virtue, goodness, and worth have meaning only as the
results of our attitudes and feelings.
Buddhism does not deny the reality of material existence, nor does it
ignore the very great effect that the physical world has upon us.
On the contrary, it refutes the mind-body dichotomy of the Brahmans
and says that mind and body are interdependent. But since the
fundamental reality of human existence is the ever-changing sequence of
thoughts, feelings, emotions, and perceptions which comprise conscious
experience, then, from the viewpoint of early Buddhism, the primary
concern of religion must be these very experiences which make up our
Most significant of these are love and hate, fear and sorrow, pride
and passion, struggle and defeat.
Conversely, such concepts as vicarious atonement, Cosmic
Consciousness, Ultimate Reality, Buddha Nature, and redemption of sins
are metaphysical and hypothetical matters of secondary importance to the
realities of daily existence.
Therefore, in Buddhism the most significant fact of life is the first
noble truth, the inevitable existence of dukkha. Dukkha is a Pali word
embracing all types of displeasurable experience — sorrow, fear, worry,
pain, despair, discord, frustration, agitation, irritation, etc. The
second noble truth states that the cause of dukkha is desire or craving.
In various texts this cause is further explained as being threefold —
greed, hatred, and delusion.
Again, on other occasions the Buddha divided the cause of suffering
into five components — sensual lust, anger, sloth or torpor, agitation
or worry, and doubt. On still other occasions he listed ten causes of
dukkha — belief that oneself is an unchanging entity; scepticism; belief
in salvation through rites, rules and ceremonies; sensual lust; hatred;
craving for fine-material existence; craving for immaterial existence;
conceit; restlessness; and ignorance. The Third Noble Truth states that
dukkha can be overcome, and the Fourth Truth prescribes the means by
which this is achieved.
Thus, with the Fourth Noble Truth, Buddhism becomes a technique, a
discipline, a way of life designed to free people from sorrow and
improve the nature of human existence. This aspect of the Dhamma is
called the Noble Eightfold Path, and includes moral teachings,
self-discipline, development of wisdom and understanding, and
improvement of one’s environment on both a personal and social level.
These have been dealt with in previous writings and for the sake of
brevity will not be repeated here. Suffice it to remind the reader that
this essay is concerned with only one aspect of Buddhism, the practice
of meditation. The ethical, practical, and logical facets of the
Teaching are covered in other publications.
If the cause of suffering is primarily psychological, then it must
follow that the cure, also, is psychological. Therefore, we find in
Buddhism a series of “mental exercises” or meditations designed to
uncover and cure our psychic aberrations.
Mistakenly, Buddhist meditation is frequently confused with yogic
meditation, which often includes physical contortions, autohypnosis,
quests for occult powers, and an attempted union with God. None of these
are concerns or practices of the Eightfold Path.
There are in Buddhism no drugs or stimulants, no secret teachings,
and no mystical formulae. Buddhist meditation deals exclusively with the
everyday phenomena of human consciousness. In the words of the Venerable
Nyanaponika Thera, a renowned Buddhist scholar and monk:
In its spirit of self-reliance, Satipatthana does not require any
elaborate technique or external devices. The daily life is its working
material. It has nothing to do with any exotic cults or rites nor does
it confer “initiations” or “esoteric knowledge” in any way other than by
Using just the conditions of life it finds, Satipatthana does not
require complete seclusion or monastic life, though in some who
undertake the practice, the desire and need for these may grow.
Lest the reader suspect that some peculiarity of the “Western mind”
precludes Occidentals from the successful practice of meditation, we
should note also the words of Rear Admiral E.H. Shattock, a British
naval officer, who spent three weeks of diligent meditation practice in
a Theravada monastery near Rangoon:
Meditation, therefore, is a really practical occupation: it is in no
sense necessarily a religious one, though it is usually thought of as
such. It is itself basically academic, practical, and profitable. It is,
I think, necessary to emphasize this point, because so many only
associate meditation with holy or saintly people, and regard it as an
advanced form of the pious life... This is not the tale of a conversion,
but of an attempt to test the reaction of a well-tried Eastern system on
a typical Western mind.
Reading about meditation is like reading about swimming; only by
getting into the water does the aspiring swimmer begin to progress. So
it is with meditation and Buddhism in general. The Dhamma must be lived,
not merely thought. Study and contemplation are valuable tools, but life
itself is the training ground.
The following passages are attempts to put into words what must be
experienced within oneself. Or in the words of the Dhammapada: “Buddhas
only point the way. Each one must work out his own salvation with
Meditation is a personal experience, a subjective experience, and
consequently each of us must tread his or her own path towards the
summit of Enlightenment. By words we can instruct and encourage but
words are only symbols for reality.
Abhidhamma in practice
6. The five disciples were delighted with the Buddha’s discourse and
all attained enlightenment, so that, at the end of this discourse, there
were six arahants in this world. There is an implication here that,
unless one gains insight into the No-self characteristic of existence,
it is not possible to start on the path to Enlightenment. Of the ten
fetters that bind us down to wanderings in Samsara, belief in a soul is
the first to be broken. Hence the profound importance of this discourse.
This second discourse was on a discovery which was revolutionary in
human thought. Before the Buddha’s time and even after, religious
teachers emphasized the existence of an abiding soul.
Can we verify
A skeptic would say that this soul-less doctrine is one of
hopelessness and despair and equates a sentient being to an automaton.
On the contrary, the No-self doctrine gives the sentient being the
highest sense of responsibility, the greatest amount of encouragement,
the highest measure of hope and is conducive to contentment which will
be reflected in the disciple’s attitude to other fellow beings, which is
the only way to put an end to all the strife on this earth.
Can we verify for ourselves the truth of this aspect of the Buddha’s
teaching? The Buddha urged his disciples to investigate the Dhamma. In
fact, this investigation is the second of the seven enlightenment
factors. In order to convince ourselves about the truth of this
doctrine, we have to follow the Noble Eightfold Path. By constant
mindfulness and insight meditation, we will know whether this teaching
is true or not. The bodily form is subject to disease, decay and death,
over which we have no ultimate control.
The body does not decide to move, stand, sit or lie down. These
movements are always preceded by a mental directive. So the ultimate
truth is that we cannot state that ‘the body is mine’ or ‘I am the
body.’ We do, however, use these terms, but this usage is only a
Dependent on conditions
The mental components arise, exist for a moment and then perish. They
arise dependent on conditions; so, here again, according to the ultimate
truth, we cannot state that the ‘mental components are mine’ or ‘I am
the mental components.’
Now, according to this teaching of No-self, wherein lies the
responsibility, the hope and the possibility of enlightenment? As
regards bodily form, we have no ultimate control over it. Even the
Buddha and the arahants suffered bodily afflictions. Disease, decay and
death cannot be prevented. The young die through accident or disease.
Living brings in its trail all the signs of decay. Kamma alone decides
the fate of this bodily form. All we can do in this present existence is
to avoid the two extremes which the Buddha discarded, namely, indulgence
The rest will happen to the bodily form regardless of our
interference. This does not mean that, when the body is afflicted by
accident or disease, no attempt should be made to alleviate such
affliction if ways and means were available. A negative attitude in this
respect would amount to one of the extremes, namely, mortification. The
Buddha, too, had a physician and his name was Jivaka. On the other hand,
it is different with the mental components.
These arise dependent on conditions which are intimately connected
with what are called the “roots,” which are either unwholesome or
wholesome, found in various combinations and degrees in all worldlings,
that is, in those who have not reached Sainthood. The unwholesome roots
a. Greed (lobha) in various forms and degrees;
b. Hatred or anger (dosa) in various forms and degrees;
c. Delusion (moha) or ignorance (avijja), particularly with reference
to the true nature of phenomena.
In a person tainted with greed and lust, the mental components will
be predominantly those associated with greed and lust. As a result,
volition will produce actions, bodily, verbal and mental, which will
reflect these taints and bring in their trail unpleasant consequences in
accordance with the Law of Action and Reaction (kamma). The same applies
to the other two roots of an unwholesome nature.
Even though our past unwholesome volitions are resulting now in
painful and unpleasant feelings, perceptions and consciousness, we can
accept these with wisdom and set out on a favourable course by replacing
the unwholesome roots by wholesome ones, that is:
a. Greed and lust by greedlessness, lustlessness and generosity
b. Hate and anger by hatelessness (adosa) and by kindness and
c. Delusion by undeludedness (amoha) and by wisdom (pañña).
In the discourse, the Buddha said that, with reference to any of the
aggregates, because there is no self (‘soul’), the possibility does not
exist whereby it could be said “may my ... be thus” and “may my ... not
be thus.” The conclusion to be drawn from this is that it is futile to
expect returns from prayer, appeal, entreaty, or offering to an outside
source or by wishing and just hoping for the best.
Help we may get from outside in the form of salutary advice and
association with the wise, but, in the final analysis, as stated in
verse 276 of the Dhammapada, “striving should be done by ourselves, the
Tathagatas are only teachers.” How do we strive? It is by following the
The unwholesome roots are replaced by wholesome ones; as progress is
made and the end of the Path is reached, the Saints have neither
unwholesome nor wholesome roots, theirs actions are kammically
inoperative, and this is the summum bonum of the Dhamma.
This striving is by no means easy. The Buddha was realistic about
this. In verse 239 of the Dhammapada, it is stated: “By degrees, little
by little, from time to time, a wise person should remove his own
impurities, as a smith removes (the dross) of silver” (Both Dhammapada
translations are by Ven. Narada). Confidence in the Threefold Refuge,
diligent application and patience will take the disciple along the Path.
What then is the cause of this delusion that a self or soul exists?
It is purely subjective, born of ignorance and nourished by the roots,
both unwholesome and wholesome. It is lack of insight into the most
profound statement ever made, that “bare phenomena roll on.” There is no
doer but only the action, there is no speaker but only the utterance,
there is no thinker but only the thought.
Going forth with meditation
If one becomes aware that ‘this is the path to Nibbana’ will his fear
leave him or will it increase? It leaves him. He becomes fearless. With
the fear leaving him joy will arise in him. He will become relaxed.
Thereafter he develops the skill to practice the meditation diligently.
Therefore we should try to develop an admiration for Satipatthana. We
should develop a liking for it. We should attempt to do so.
What have we got to do in this connection? We should develop a liking
to associate with worthy friends. We should attempt it. If we form an
association with worthy friends in that manner, it becomes possible for
us to form an admiration for Satipatthana.
leads to inner serenity
A person who starts admiring the Satipatthana remains with a happy
mind. He lives with a fresh mind. His life is beautiful. The ugly nature
of life starts leaving him. The immense fear he had in Sansara starts
getting away from him. That is a natural phenomenon. There is nothing
strange in it. It is not a delusion. It is something that takes place.
All of us should get to like to arrive there.
The Buddha explained to us that this is the only path. Satipatthana
is the only way to develop purity in the mind, to remove suffering and
sorrow, to get rid of the nature of sadness and repentance in the mind,
to develop the unique wisdom and to attain Nibbana. Try to generate
confidence in this principle. Then there fearlessness will rise. Doubts
will disappear. Luke warmness in the mind will go off. Laziness will
leave you. Such a person will be able to live in joy.
If we form an admiration for Satipatthana for what has it been
formed? In respect of what was admiration formed? It was for the path to
Nibbana. We are in admiration of the Fourth Noble Truth. If one admires
one Noble Truth he gets to admire all Four Noble Truths.
One who develops admiration for Satipatthana develops admiration for
the four Noble Truths. If there is admiration for the Noble Truths isn’t
Saddha there? That means he has now arrived at Saddha.
That is if we develop an admiration or trust in Satipatthana we would
have made a great achievement. Therefore we should not perform useless
activities like blind people groping in the dark. Blind people will feel
here and there and say ‘What is this? Where is it? Don’t do meaningless
things like that. In the manner of a person with good eye sight
distinguishing things in broad day light, try to generate trust in
Satipatthana which has been explained very clearly. Be willing to do so.
Reread it. Read and develop admiration for that Dhamma preached by the
Buddha. Remove from the mind ideas like ‘How is that? How is this?’etc.
Leave aside suspicion and doubt. When there is confidence in
Satipatthana doubts go off. Leave aside that nature of doubting. Trust
in this Dhamma. One who trusts does not get into a hurry. He performs it
When he practices for sometime he becomes certain of what he has
trusted. At this stage if he had any doubt such doubts will gradually
start leaving him. If there was any Dhamma which he had trusted, he
becomes absolutely certain of such Dhamma. It becomes so confirmed that
another person will not be able to make it leave him.
At this stage doubt is annihilated. Doubt will never arise in him in
future. It is impossible to annihilate doubt in that manner while
retaining doubt. Can we annihilate doubt while retaining doubt? It is
impossible to annihilate doubt while keeping it with us.
To get rid of doubt or to annihilate doubt what have we got to do in
the first instance?
First of all we must leave aside doubt. That is having confidence.
Confidence in the Dhamma means leaving aside the doubt. Does doubt get
annihilated merely by believing in the Dhamma? No. Leave aside doubt
without doubting. Place confidence in Dhamma after leaving aside doubt.
Develop a confidence in Satipatthana thinking ‘This is what is
correct. This is the way’. Develop admiration. Thereafter he starts
practicing the Dhamma explained in Satipatthana.
What is the quality we should have to practice that Dhamma? We should
get rid of the doubt we had about the Dhamma. Will we practice it if
there is no trust in the Dhamma.
It is impossible to get even an iota of the expected results by
practicing while retaining doubt. One may say ‘Let us try and see’.
Will he get the results? He is testing. One can never get results
from Dhamma by testing. What is close to experimenting is doubt.
Therefore leave aside doubt.
Have confidence in the understanding (enlightenment) of the Buddha.
What is the nature of the person who believes in the Dhamma? He has
patience. What does he do with patience? He starts practicing the Dhamma
with patience. Then who is he? One who practices Dhamma? What happens to
a person when he practices something? As he practices he develops an
understanding about what he practices. He becomes certain about what he
practices. An understanding is generated in him. That is what is called
becoming certain. What did he have in him before practicing? Was there
an understanding? No. What was there earlier? A trust, a confidence was
there. He believes in the Dhamma. After believing he practices it with
patience. What develops when he practices in that manner? When he
practices he develops in himself an understanding about it. What is it
It gets confirmed in himself. He becomes certain that it is the
After some time we develop a perfect confidence about what we
trusted. On that day doubt gets completely eradicated. It never comes
back. All this happens during meditation. It happens by improving the
mindfulness. To develop mindfulness we have to generate mindfulness. On
what should we generate mindfulness? On Satipatthana. If one has trust
in Satipatthana based on it he will improve the mindfulness. Then he
will be able to develop unshakable admiration for the Noble Truths.
We hope to talk about it in the future. May you get the fortune and
the strength to develop a strong admiration in respect of the Four
Satipatthana, the way to Nibbana shown by the Buddha. For that we bless
you to get the strength and the fortune to come across the association
with worthy friends, to develop it and to maintain it.
(Compiled with instructions from Ven Nawalapitiye Ariyawansa Thera.)