A Review of The Eightfold Path
Part VIII: Right Concentration
Dharma Talk -- Eric Kolvig -- November 19, 1998 -- Albuquerque, New Mexico

It feels good to be back. I've been sitting for six weeks in southern New Mexico in a self-retreat, and then teaching in California, and one of the things that has come from being in retreat is that I feel like I have fallen in love with the Dharma again -- really seeing its value from the direct experience of it, and not just talking about it.

This is a landmark evening for us, because for some months now we have been doing our final tour through the Noble Eightfold Path, and we've come the last aspect -- the eighth aspect of Right Concentration, or True Concentration. We are completing this process which we started in February 1997, so it's close to two years -- more than twenty months -- that we have been talking about this subject of the Eightfold Path. Exhaustive, and though I love the subject, I'm glad to be moving on. We've already spent a fair amount of time talking about concentration, so I hope you don't mind the repetition this evening.

Concentration is, in some ways, the most obscure and least accessible of the aspects of the Eightfold Path, and talking about it often tends to be quite technical. I'll get a little technical this evening, but I'd actually like to set concentration in the context of the larger teaching -- looking at the big picture of the teachings and the practice, and seeing where it fits, so that it may feel a little more relevant and a little less obscure.

It's useful to step back and see the big picture. I had a really nice experience of that a week and a half ago. I was leading a retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County in northern California, and I ran into Sheila Weinberg, who is the rabbi of the Jewish community in Amherst, Massachusetts, where I lived for many years. It was delightful to see her. She was with Sylvia Boorstein, who is a vipassana teacher in California, and they were just about to start a retreat for thirty-one rabbis who had never done practice before. I asked them to tell me a little about it, because I'd known that Sylvia and Sheila had been serving that community and doing a teacher training for rabbis and other leaders of the Jewish community -- teaching them to take the Dharma into their communities. I really honored what they were doing. I think it's extraordinary that, by bringing this particular practice into the Jewish tradition, they're helping to revive the mystical tradition of Judaism.

As we were standing in the parking lot I said to them, "It feels to me that what you're doing here is historic," and Sylvia reminded me of a quotation by Arnold J. Toynbee that I'd heard many years ago and have reflected on a lot. Toynbee was a world historian -- a macro-historian who liked looking at big developments over centuries of time. Before he died, which was somewhere around the middle of this century, Toynbee said, "After the twentieth century is over [we're getting close], historians will look back, and when they try to assess what was the most important thing in the twentieth century, it won't be about capitalism or communism. It will be about the movement of Buddhism from Asia to the Western world, and the way in which Buddhism and the Dharma will begin to transform Western civilization." I think it was remarkable that Toynbee was able to make that prediction in the middle of the century, when this big movement was just starting to happen. It was an interesting prediction.

I could just feel it -- the three of us standing there in the parking lot: Sylvia and Sheila and I -- there was just a way I could see it in their eyes as we were stepping back and realizing that we are part of something very big. I think when we're doing our own Dharma practice, we can get so caught up in the drama of our lives -- I've certainly had lots of drama this year -- and very often in the drama of our communities, as we're working things out and going through changes, it's easy to forget that we're part of something very, very large. So I've been reflecting on that in the last week and a half, feeling so grateful to be part of some immensely important historic event that's happening, and to be doing my little tiny piece of it: to help the transference of the Dharma to the Western world, and the beginning of seeing the way in which the Dharma can transform this civilization into something healthier. I'd love to be able to peek in after 500 years and see how it's going, but it feels like a very important thing.

To look at how concentration fits into the teachings, it seems really clear to me -- and I say this over and over again, but I've actually experienced it quite powerfully over the last couple of months -- that this teaching and practice is not about learning something intellectually, it's not about some exercise that we do, it's about transforming the way we live our lives -- actually transforming what we are. Someone once described this practice by saying that we're all artists, and what we're creating through this purification is beautiful being. So it's really about applying the Eightfold Path to our lives -- applying concentration is one aspect of it. And to fit concentration into the context -- it's really the context of the Four Noble Truths. I know this is all very familiar to you, probably, but the core -- the essential teaching of the Buddha -- is that there's suffering in the world. We have to get through our denial to get to that realization; that there's a cause of suffering in the world, which is craving, grasping and clinging at that which passes away; that there can be an end of suffering, a cessation of suffering; and that there's a way to achieve that end, and that way is the Noble Eightfold Path. That way is actually practicing, for ourselves, wisdom, or understanding; practicing the purification of our intentions in the world, our motivations in the world; practicing speech that is nonharming; practicing action that is nonharming; practicing livelihood, or work, that is nonharming -- we've spent months and months talking about these things. Developing a powerful and pure effort in our practice; developing powerful awareness, or mindfulness; and finally, developing powerful concentration.

Ultimately, it's about happiness. We talk a lot about suffering, but it's actually about happiness. It's about how to develop deeper and deeper happiness for ourselves and then rippling that effect out onto the world. It's important to look, to really investigate, to inquire where we actually think our happiness comes from, because the basic, conventional way of seeing happiness and where it comes from is actually quite wrong -- the way that we've all learned. It's a question of looking at that and seeing that it doesn't work, and then finding a different way to be happy.

How many times in your life, do you suppose, has someone promised you, or have you promised yourself -- either implicitly or explicitly -- that if you do this, if you have this, if you be this, then you will happy? Has it really worked? Just looking around at this culture, this promise is constantly held out to us -- in advertising, for example. Sometimes this promise is very toxic: "If you drink Cutty Sark, then you will be happy," or "If you smoke Winstons, then you will be happy," or "Salem will really take you away." Indeed it will take you away -- before your time. [Laughter] "If you go off and fight for the honor of your country, you will be happy." Some pretty toxic messages. Or, "If you keep women in their place, or people of color in their place, or gay people in their place, you'll be happy." There are very powerful messages in this culture that are really quite toxic.

And there are lots of promises about happiness that aren't quite so toxic. But it's very useful for us to look, because we've all got it going in us: "If only ..., if only ..., then I would be happy." I went to the post office in Tesuque today, just before I came down here, and the new Newsweek talks about "In Search of the Supercar." If you had this supercar, for sure you would be happy! I guarantee it!

The error that we make -- and it's a very profound error -- is that we seek happiness in that which passes away. We seek happiness in possessing, on one level or another -- and this is the second Noble Truth, about craving, grasping and clinging -- we seek happiness with something that we are certain to lose, and we live in constant anxiety about it. To really understand that -- it's such a painful truth, it's really hard to look at, but that's how it works. Whatever -- the supercar, or the right house, or the right partner -- "If only that person were my wife, or my husband, or my partner," or "If only I could have sex with that person," or "If only I had this job." It's very important for us to pay attention to all of these things in our lives -- to pay attention to what kind of food we eat, and what kind of people we relate to, and what sort of work we do -- it's definitely part of our practice. But we need to realize that our happiness -- any kind of lasting happiness -- cannot come from holding onto that which passes away. We need to have some kind of deep understanding of that.

Really look at it -- and it's fascinating to me, because we are constantly putting our happiness outside ourselves into something or another: getting the latest CD of our favorite musician, whatever it is. Actually, you should get that CD, put it on the machine, start to listen to the music, and then watch to see where the happiness comes from. It's beautiful music -- it makes you happy -- but the experience that we really cherish is an experience in our consciousness -- in our minds. It's not the music -- the music is just music; or the apple pie, or whatever it is -- you chew it up, with saliva -- it's not the experience itself, it's not that external object itself, it's the experience we have in relation to it -- the joy, the happiness -- that's what we really want. I think if we can remember that, as we reach out for whatever, and we realize that it's actually a moment in consciousness that we want, a moment of happiness in our consciousness -- then we're bringing our power back into ourselves. By transforming what we are, and transforming our relationships to things, we begin, more and more, to find a kind of happiness which is not dependent on external things. It comes from the transformation of our hearts, from creating this beautiful being.

The Buddha said, in terms of our practice, that if you want worldly happiness, then practice generosity and ethical conduct -- nonharming conduct -- in the world. He said that the more that you perfect nonharming conduct, the more happiness will come to you. He said that if you're generous, the karmic result of generosity is wealth. It makes sense. For example, as we actually do those aspects of the Eightfold Path -- right speech, right action, right livelihood -- as we really pay attention to those things, to how we act and speak and work in the world, more and more happiness comes to us. It comes from the purification of our speech and our action. So instead of practicing killing and violence, we practice kindness. Instead of practicing grasping and clinging, we practice generosity. Instead of practicing stealing, we practice generosity. Instead of practicing rape or sexual harassment, we practice using our sexual energies in ways that bring happiness to ourselves and to others. Instead of practicing lying, or harsh speech, or malicious speech, or idle speech, we practice speech that brings happiness to ourselves and to others. Instead of practicing being intoxicated, and being confused, and having our minds distorted, we practice clarity. So if you want worldly happiness, the Buddha said, do those aspects of the Eightfold Path.

He also said that if you want celestial, or heavenly, happiness, get your mind concentrated, because as the mind becomes more and more concentrated, and more and more calm, it actually becomes celestial in its happiness. I'll talk more about how that happens later. And he said that if you want unconditioned happiness, then develop deep wisdom, because the experience of the reality of what we call nirvana -- unconditioned reality -- is dependent on nothing whatever -- internal or external. That's why the Buddha said that it is by far -- by far -- a million times more important than any other kind of happiness we can have. So that's how happiness relates to our path.

Concentration is, basically, cultivating a mind which is one-pointed and doesn't wander. We've just done a meditation sitting -- did you find that your mind wandered at all? [Laughter] What we do is we practice bringing our minds back, over and over again, and teach them to sit -- to stay in place, as it were. Concentration is one-pointedness of mind, and it's a wonderfully stabilizing thing to learn to do that. It takes patience, because our minds are trained to be running off all over the place. We teach them to come, and to stay in place. And what happens with that process -- as we develop deeper and deeper concentration -- as we teach our mind to sit in place, it becomes calmer. You can experience one of the forms of happiness that comes with a concentrated mind -- it's the happiness of calm and tranquillity. And in this enormously agitated and anxious world, that's a wonderful gift to give to ourselves -- the gift of peacefulness and calm.

As the mind becomes calmer, and the sense of tranquillity and calmness deepens, there comes a feeling of unity and wholeness in the mind, which is also an enormous gift. Living conventionally, our hearts are divided -- there's inner conflict. Parts of ourselves are fighting with other parts of ourselves, which are fighting with all kinds of things in the world. As concentration deepens, there can be more and more of a sense of the divisions being healed -- we can feel whole and unified. That sense of alienation and separation falls away, and when that sense of unity becomes profound, in very deep concentration, one can feel entirely at one with the universe -- at one with everything -- which is an ideal in many religious and spiritual traditions. For some spiritual traditions, it's the end of the path -- to come to a sense of oneness, or unity, with all things, with the entire universe. For us, it's a wonderful moment along the path, but it's not the end of the path.

This is a kind of happiness, when we come to it, which is so much greater than the happiness of sense pleasures, for example. Think of what kind of pleasant experiences you've had in the last week, or even think of the most pleasant experiences you've had in your life -- it could be a vacation on Maui, or it could be some wonderful sexual experience, or it could be any number of things -- some extraordinary experience. It was fine -- didn't last very long, though. But by actually cultivating these qualities -- these internal qualities -- the quality of our happiness gets greater and greater. And as the mind continues to get calm, it becomes secluded from the unwholesome qualities of consciousness. We talk about the "kilesas", the Pali word for the root tormentors of our mind, out of which all other pain comes. These are greed, or desire; aversion -- all forms of aversion, like hatred and anger and fear and grief and envy and anxiety; and delusion -- not understanding clearly what is true and what isn't. As the mind becomes very calm, it gets absorbed and secluded, and more and more those qualities can't touch the mind, while it is concentrated. So the mind starts to become very pure. And when it becomes pure, it becomes rapturous.

Rapture is a feeling of joyous delight in all that we encounter. We've all had the experience -- you walk out your door on a beautiful spring morning and there's a brilliant yellow daffodil, and suddenly you're there with it and there's this feeling, "Oh!" That "Oh!" feeling. Or you're skiing in the middle of winter, and there are wonderful crystals in the air, and it's brilliant, and you look out across the landscape, and there's that, "Oh!" We've all had those experiences -- I had such an experience with chocolate mousse a few months ago. [Laughter] I was at a dinner party and I was served chocolate mousse and I couldn't believe it. I was sitting there, very mindfully eating the mousse one bite at a time, and there was someone down the table who was watching me, and she said, "You know, I live with a French person, and I thought they enjoyed their food!" So that sense of rapture can come. And again, it's not the chocolate mousse, it's not the sunset, it's not the daffodil that is so important to us -- it's actually the experience of rapture itself. And as we purify our minds more and more through concentration, our minds become more and more automatically rapturous. So it's possible, when your mind is rapturous, to be happy anywhere -- even downtown Newark -- wherever you happen to be. You could be in a very unpleasant environment, but if your mind is inclined toward rapture, if your mind is more or less secluded from the unwholesome qualities of consciousness, you can stay happy.

As rapture deepens and calm continues to deepen, and as the mind becomes more and more secluded from unwholesome qualities of consciousness through the development of concentration, then rapture tends to fall away, and bliss comes -- "blissing out" in meditation. Bliss is a much quieter, calmer form of happiness than rapture, which tends to be somewhat excited, and it's actually a much deeper form, even though it's quieter. It's really a feeling of contentment and deep peacefulness. It's so much superior to the normal forms of happiness that we know about, as the mind becomes more and more purified.

And finally, when concentration becomes very deep and the mind becomes very one-pointed, then equanimity comes. Equanimity feels kind of neutral, but the Buddha described it as the purest form of conditioned happiness that we can experience. It's a mind that becomes stable, and steady, and extraordinarily calm. An equanimous mind is no longer drawn out -- it's no longer pulled out toward pleasant things; it's no longer repulsed by, or pulling back from, unpleasant things. It's just there, allowing pleasant and unpleasant to come and go, unaffected by those things. In times of very deep equanimity, the image that keeps coming to my mind -- and I've had some experience of it in recent weeks -- the mind becomes like a diamond mountain. It's very stable, and it's very transparent, and absolutely brilliant. A wonderful, extraordinary quality of happiness.

If you're interested in developing concentration, the normal practice that we do and that we teach in this tradition is the practice of mindfulness -- vipassana, or awareness -- and concentration comes through the practice of mindfulness. But it's also possible to choose a practice that's designed specifically for developing concentration. The difference between the two practices is that mindfulness, or vipassana, practice is paying attention to changing things -- to things that are constantly changing. So you may be aware of a thought, and then there's a sound, and then there's an emotion, and a physical sensation, and a smell, and so on -- constantly changing experience, when we're practicing vipassana. Or we pay attention to the breath, which is constantly changing.

A concentration practice is paying attention to that which is unchanging, so it could be a mantra, for example. In our tradition we have the mantra "buddho", which means "awake", and we just repeat that sound -- those two syllables -- again and again. Or lovingkindness practice -- the metta practice that we do is repeating phrases over and over again -- unchanging phrases. Or compassion, or sympathetic joy practice, or the equanimity practice that we do -- all are concentration practices. Or, if your background is Christian and you feel more comfortable with Christian language than Buddhist language, there's a famous mantra that millions of people have practiced from the Greek and Russian Orthodox traditions, the Jesus prayer: just saying over and over again, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." It will bring the same effect. And actually you can repeat any kind of sound in your mind, as long as it's a wholesome sound. I don't know -- I've never tried it -- but I have a feeling that repeating "Oh shit" over and over again is not going to work very well. [Laughter] You can try it, but I don't recommend it. So pick something wholesome, like "Love" -- whatever you really respond to. ["Chocolate mousse." Laughter] You know, the nice thing about that chocolate mousse was that I savored every single bite of it, and then my host offered me a second helping, and I turned him down. I said, "That's OK." You enjoy it -- you let it go.

So if you want to deepen the sense of concentration, of one-pointedness, of bringing the sense of unity, of bringing the sense of rapture, of being removed from that which is unwholesome, of bringing bliss and equanimity, you might try one of these concentration practices. If you want this enormous steadiness of mind and the sense of wholesomeness -- you actually put your mind into celestial states for the time that you're there -- choose a concentration practice and stay with it for a few months -- say, six or eight months -- and then start to notice that things are shifting for you. And then with concentration, it's possible to do the wisdom practice, and the mindfulness practice, and it will go more quickly. What is really interesting about concentration is that it's the eighth aspect of the Eightfold Path. It's the necessary condition for understanding to arise, which is the first aspect of the Eightfold Path. It's a cycle that goes on and on. Your mind has to be concentrated for understanding to arise.

I'd like to speak briefly about how concentration specifically relates to these unwholesome qualities of consciousness. The Buddha said that if we practice ethical conduct and generosity, what we end up doing is blocking the outrageous expressions of unwholesome qualities of consciousness. So, for example, if we're feeling hatred, if we are willing to practice nonharming, then we might not be killing, or we might not be stealing, or we might not be raping. These outrageous expressions of harming that come from qualities like hatred or greed get blocked by the practice of ethical conduct -- it's a great gift to ourselves and to the world. And we're diminishing those unwholesome qualities of consciousness.

The Buddha said that if you want to block the subtle expressions of these unwholesome states, then develop deep concentration. When the mind is deeply absorbed, it's actually impervious to these unwholesome qualities while you're in that state. And the Buddha said that if you want to diminish and eventually uproot even the latent expressions of unwholesome qualities of consciousness, then you should develop wisdom. So if our wisdom gets deep enough, the unwholesome qualities of consciousness are first diminished and then they're "blown out" of consciousness. At some stage in this process, desire and aversion disappear forever -- they never arise again.

A concentrated mind is made up of five elements -- what are called the "jhanic factors." There's the factor of aiming your attention toward some object, which we do with any kind of meditation practice. There's the factor of sustaining your attention on that object, whatever it is -- we do that with all meditation practices. There's the factor of rapture, which I mentioned -- of joyous delight in our experience. There's the factor of bliss -- of this quiet, contented happiness. And finally there's the factor of one-pointedness -- of a mind that's stable, when you're able to hold your attention on an object and it won't waver. And those five qualities -- those five jhanic factors -- are specific antidotes to the five hindrances, or toxic qualities of consciousness, which come to us. So the hindrances are: greed, or grasping desire; aversion of all kinds; sloth and torpor, a kind of laziness of mind; agitation, or anxiety; and doubt.

The quality of one-pointedness, or unwavering, is an antidote for desire. Rapture is the antidote for aversion -- that's obvious. If you're feeling joy, you won't be feeling hatred -- these two things cannot co-exist in the mind. The quality of aiming our attention is an antidote for sloth and torpor. The quality of bliss is the antidote for restlessness and worry. And finally, sustained attention is the antidote for doubt. I realize we're getting quite technical here, but often if we're sitting following our breath in our practice, it's very easy to say, "Why am I doing this?" You know, we get criticized for watching our navels. "Why am I doing this? Why? It seems so silly. It seems so inconsequential." But what's happening, if your mind wanders and you're able to come back to your breathing and you keep doing that -- you keep coming back when your mind wanders -- there's actually a profound, complex and very subtle process that's happening as a result of that. Most of it is subliminal, so we're not aware of it. For example, you're developing these five qualities -- these jhanic factors -- and they are serving as antidotes to those qualities of consciousness that cause you, and others, affliction in your life. So even though we're not aware of it, something very powerful is happening for us.

So I think it's something that can be very helpful and very useful for us, and it's something that I keep reminding myself: to carefully reflect on what is it, truly, that brings happiness in my life? It's fine to go out and buy a Mercedes sports utility vehicle -- it's fine -- but it's not going to bring you lasting happiness. I've been working on the deepest attachment of my whole life in this last year, and having lost that which is most important to me, I have watched the pain of attachment, and I'm really seeing it. I might have been happy when that beloved object was in my life, but now that that beloved object is out of my life, there's a lot of pain. I can really see that. Storing too much of our belief in the idea that happiness comes from something out there is an absolute setup for suffering in our lives. It's bound to happen, because everything is impermanent. You can turn for refuge to this practice, to the practice of the Eightfold Path, and develop more and more qualities that are not dependent on external things for happiness, and actually it's a deeper form of happiness.

So we have now finished our long journey through the Eightfold Path, and I don't know where we'll go from here, but we'll figure it out in two weeks. May we all find ways to have minds that are happy without depending on anything external. Thank you.

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Q: I just finished a book called Forest Recollections about twentieth-century wandering forest monks in Thailand, and there's a great story that comes to mind about concentration. Two monks are walking in the wilderness through the forest, and this huge tiger comes walking down the trail towards them. And they stop and turn around, and there's another tiger following them. And the story goes that one of the monks just locked into this extremely deep concentration and just disappeared from reality, and woke up a couple hours later, standing in the path and the tigers were gone. Those tigers ate people, so ...

Eric: Right. But you know what? There was no expression of fear in that mind -- that deeply concentrated mind was completely free from fear, and usually the predator-prey relationship requires fear for it to happen. It's a wonderful story. Apropos of that, you may also know the story in which the Buddha's cousin, Devadatta, was very jealous of the Buddha, and kept trying to kill him. And he hatched an extraordinary plot of taking a royal bull elephant -- this massive, enormous being -- getting it drunk, and then goading it by stabbing spears into the back of its legs, so that it went absolutely wild. And the Buddha was out doing alms rounds -- going out for food -- in an alleyway from which there was no escape. As this raging bull elephant was running at him, Ananda, his cousin and attendant, very bravely stepped in front of the Buddha. And the Buddha said, "Ananda, you'd better leave this one to me," and put him aside. And the Buddha stood and generated extraordinarily powerful lovingkindness. I've actually been in the presence of someone who had perfected lovingkindness, and it's like walking into a force field -- it's a power that you can feel, it's immense power. The Buddha just stood very still with this charging elephant coming at him and generated lovingkindness, and the elephant slowed to a walk, and then stopped, and then kneeled in front of him. So again, we tend to think of these things as really way out there -- weirdo, strange -- but it actually can be done -- these qualities can be developed. Thank you for that example.

Q: Could you say some more about grief being a form of aversion? I'm kind of stuck on that.

Eric: Right. One thing that is not suggested is that we shouldn't have these qualities. So if there's anger, it's fine; if there's grief, it's fine. There's no judgment about it. But if we look at it, grief is resistance to the passing away of things. It's resisting. And it's certainly understandable -- I've been dealing with lots and lots of grief myself this year, so I've really had a chance to look at it. There's a wonderful story, if I may share another story that I find very powerful, which is actually harsh teaching in a way. One of the chief supporters of the Buddha -- a woman who was enormously generous to the Buddha and his community -- came to him in tears. Her favorite granddaughter had died, and she was beside herself with grief. She really loved her children and her grandchildren. And the Buddha said, "Would you like to have as many children and grandchildren as there are in the city of Savatthi?", where they were. And she said, "Oh, that would be wonderful." And he said, "How many people die every day in Savatthi?" And she said, "Sometimes ten." And she goes down through the list, and says, "At least one person, every day." And the Buddha said, "Then you would be grieving every day, wouldn't you? If you have a hundred people who are dear to you, you will have a hundred sorrows." And he goes down through the whole list, and finally he says, "If you have one person who is dear to you, you will have one sorrow. If you have no one who is dear to you, you will have no sorrows." The Buddha is not suggesting that we become indifferent. He's suggesting that we really come to understand that all things are impermanent. And so even when a beloved granddaughter dies, to be able to say, "Thus it is. That which arises, passes away."

So that's why grief is an aversion. Is that useful?

Q: Yes, thank you.

Q: I like the way you always bring things back to experience, showing that it's not so abstract and theological. I was reading a book a couple of days ago, and it mentioned a meeting that Catholics and Buddhists had in Thailand back in the 1960s, I think. What happened is that the clerics couldn't get along at all, because they were arguing over points of doctrine, but the monks in both traditions just really jived together -- the vibes were so good -- because they were coming from the experiential realm.

Eric: That's very nice. I've often imagined Jesus and St. Francis and the Buddha sitting down and having breakfast together. There would be no argument. Thanks for that. And it's really true -- you see it in our day as well, when monastics get together, or practitioners get together. The Buddha talked about various kinds of attachment, and one of them is to views and opinions. If we're not attached to views and opinions, and we just see that this is all about opening our hearts and becoming clearer in our minds, then we can honor that opening and clarity wherever we see it. Thanks for that example.

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