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The Four Sublime States
Doctrine and Practice in Buddhism
Thich Vien Ly
Meditation is learning how to direct many thought-moments bombarding one’s mind all within a second to a “one-pointedness of mind.” The essence of meditation is to clear the mind – that is, to clear the mind of every thought. How does one begin this process? Starting on the journey is the difficult part right after one decides to proceed. A novice or beginner finds Buddhist meditation, as discussed in text and scholarly writings, difficult to understand. Many Buddhist devotees, therefore, attend regular services of chanting and Dhamma lectures and seek to practice meditation under a master’s guidance. Meditation practice is necessary beyond the spiritual discoveries of the Way – the true Buddha’s Path.
In ensuing general discussion of meditation and its purposes, what is intended is to introduce the subject and give the reader information beneficial to practice? Culture of the heart, or rather the mind, is the first job confronting one in developing meditation techniques. Right Mindfulness (meditation), the seventh step of the Noble-Eight-Fold Path, leads to the last one – Right Concentration (samadhi and insight).
Of the three “pillars” of Buddhist belief and teaching, wisdom (panna) concentration (samadhi) and virtue (sila), the Buddha has placed great emphasis on virtue as the necessary basis for mental development for culture of the mind. Attention to morality, and following moral standards and ethics, regulates relations between and individual and his/her progress. Morality must be guided and ensured by precepts and rules, which need, by all means, to be explained in common-sense terms. There may be controversy and strong disagreement among Buddhist scholars and practitioners as to which would come first: the motivation and the attitude of wanting to practice morality, or the zealous practice of compassion.
Viewing this argument in strictly “human behavioral” terms (and not “religious”), the question would be raised, “can an individual extend a compassionate hand to another living being without the motivation to be moral and to follow virtuous precepts? Some think that morality can be regulated in a religious sense, and that compassion is not a natural human instinct. This debate would undoubtedly lead both sides to the conclusion that compassion needs to be taught as an object of meditation, and in-depth review and discussions of the Noble-Eight-Fold Path is necessary for resolution. As noted earlier, Dhamma teachings on the seventh and eighth steps – “Right Mindfulness” and “Right Concentration” need to be addressed.
In Buddhist teachings, morality, or “culture of the heart” or of the mind, has a special place and is given in truth in The Four Sublime States; expressed by Piyadassi Thera in Buddhist Meditation, there are four brahma-vihara:
We also think of sila (morality) as the indispensable basis for the brahma-vihara, as the brahma-vihara is placed between the rupa (material) and the arupa (non-material) states of meditation.
The brahma-vihara can be taken as subjects of meditation to help the practitioner see more clearly into ways to cultivating the mind and bringing about stronger heart-centered feelings. Hearing lectures on the Four Sublime States, reading descriptions of what they are, and delving deeply into their meaning are all important for an intellectual understanding. But, this level of investigation is only superficial and remains so until one begins serious and profound meditation practice. In Buddhist Meditation, Piyadassi Thera writes:
‘Subha-vimokkha is another term by which these qualities of the heart are known. It means deliverance of the mind (vimokkha) through recognition of the good (subha) in others. Instead of seeing the evil in others, the meditator sees the good in them and cultivates the Four Sublime States… The brahma-vihara… can also be taken as subjects of meditation then it is called “brahma-vihara bhavana”, the meditative developments of the Sublime States. By cultivating these positive virtues one can maintain a calm and pure mind.’ [Piyadassi, 1979]
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