At one point, he said that one of the reasons zombies are so popular right now is because of our culture and how we're afraid, unconsciously or otherwise, of consumerism and other memes infecting us and turning us into zombies. He compared these things to the parasites in nature that infect other animals and make them do things that aren't in their best interest, but are in the best interest of the parasite. In the same way, things like greed, hatred, and delusion, or the things in society that arise out of and prey upon the greed, hatred, and delusion in our minds, make us do things that aren't in our best interest. When walking down a grocery store aisle, what makes us grab the things that we know aren't good for us?
In a sense, our minds can be our own worst enemies, and it's within our minds that real suffering arises. To help counter the influence of greed, hatred, and delusion, as well as to distill fear, Buddhism offers four guardian meditations to put the mind in the present, nourish it, and help it discern which ideas are worth listening to and which aren't: recollection of the Buddha, goodwill, foulness of body meditation, and recollection of death. From a transcript of a similar talk given at Wat Metta:
There's a series of meditations called guardian meditations, which are very helpful in using skillful perceptions to get the mind in the right mood, in the right attitude, with the right understanding, as you come into the present moment. You'll often find, as you're sitting here meditating on the breath, that the problem is not with the breath. It's with the mental baggage you're carrying with you. So you want to open up the bags and throw out all the unnecessary weight. There's an image they have in Thailand of the old woman who carries around a huge bundle of straw on her back. She's always bent over because she's carrying so much straw. People ask her why she doesn't put it down, and she says, "Well, someday this straw's going to come in handy, so I'm carrying it for the day I'll need it." So she carries it wherever she goes. Of course there are many other things she could be carrying, but she can't because the straw is such a huge bundle, and of course it's pretty useless.
So you want to look into your baggage to see how much straw you're carrying around, so that you can lighten your load. Then you can replace it with better things, things that really will be useful. And the guardian meditations are a good way of sorting things out in your baggage.
The first guardian meditation is recollection of the Buddha, keeping in mind his Awakening, reflecting on it as a central event in the history of the world. The fact of his Awakening shows that through human effort true happiness can be found. It's an important point to keep in mind because so much of our modern culture tries to say, "Hey. You can't have an ultimate and deathless happiness, but you can have the happiness that comes from our eggbeater with an MP3 player built right into the handle," or whatever. In other words, they keep you focused on what you can get out of buying their stuff, which is all pretty miserable. How many articles in The Onion are based on this: "Woman discovers that buying that new mop did not deliver the fulfillment that she hoped it would bring to her life." In other words, our culture keeps us aiming pretty low: "Go for the quick fix. Go for something that doesn't require any effort or skill on your part, just money." They dress it up, make it sound like you'll be really happy if you buy their stuff.
So it's important to keep in mind that there was someone in the past who found true happiness and it was through his own efforts. And, as he said, it wasn't because he was a special god or anything. It was simply through developing qualities of mind that we can all develop — man, woman, child, lay or ordained: ardency, resolution, heedfulness. We all have these qualities to some extent. It's simply a matter of developing them. The same with virtue, concentration, discernment: These are things we all have to some extent. It's simply a matter of learning how to make them all-around.
So when you're tempted to go for the quick but short happiness, remind yourself, "The Buddha says that true happiness is possible, and that it can be gained through human effort." Do you want to live your life without exploring that possibility? Or do you just want to write it off?
In this way, keeping the Buddha's Awakening in mind is an important perception, an important perspective, to bring to all of your experiences. And there are many other things that you can gain by thinking about the Buddha's life: the sort of person he was, his last message to be heedful. He was the sort of person who had already found true happiness. He didn't need to gain anything from anyone else, but he went out and he taught for 45 years, walking around Northern India. Wherever there was someone who was ready to be taught, ready to benefit from his teachings, he would walk there. That's the kind of person who taught this Dhamma. Not someone who was running a retreat center and needed to bring in cash, and who was willing to say anything to attract clientele, but someone acting totally out of pure motives, pure compassion. So that's the kind of practice we're practicing as we follow his path. And it's ennobling for us to practice in that lineage.
So these are good perceptions to hold in mind. Especially when you're getting discouraged or tempted to give up on the practice, or if you think, "Well, maybe I'm not up to this": Remember that the essential qualities for Awakening are qualities that everybody can develop. But we have to develop them ourselves. We can't depend on anyone outside to come and do it for us. That's the other part of the message of the Buddha's life, the part that keeps you on your toes.
The second guardian meditation is goodwill. You want to bring an attitude of goodwill to everybody around you. When the Buddha talked about goodwill in the brahma-viharas, it wasn't ordinary, everyday goodwill. It was goodwill all around, without limit. That's not easy. It doesn't come naturally to us. We tend to have goodwill for certain people, and not so much for other people. As a result, our actions very easily turn unskillful. It's very easy to do harm to the people we don't care about or who aren't on our list of people who deserve to be happy. And it's also easy to drop people from the list when the mood strikes us, to treat even the people we love in unskillful ways.
So to protect yourself from that kind of unskillful action, you've got to learn how to make your goodwill all-around, 24/7. That doesn't mean creating a cloud machine that sends out billowing clouds in all directions to hide your lack of goodwill. When you start spreading thoughts of goodwill, first you spread it to people who are easy — the people you already love and like — and then to people who are harder. Even though you don't like them, you can ask yourself: "Why would I not want this person to be happy?" After all, when people aren't happy, they can do cruel and miserable things. The world would be a better place if everyone could find true happiness inside, regardless of whether you like them or not, or whether they've been good or not, or whether they're on your list of the "deserving." And besides, who made you the National Bureau of Standards? Why should your likes and dislikes rule the world? In this way, goodwill meditation is meant to be a challenge for you to really think through why you'd want to limit your goodwill, and to remind yourself of why it's good to have goodwill for everyone. You can't act on harmful intentions if your goodwill is all around. This is why it's called a guardian meditation.
The third guardian meditation is of the foulness of the body. A lot of people don't like this one. If we took a poll of meditators here in the West, we'd probably find this at the bottom of the list of popular meditation topics, yet it's very useful. Some people say, "Hey, I've already got a negative body image. Why do you want me to make it even more negative?" Well, there's healthy negative body image, as well as an unhealthy one. Unhealthy is when you see that your body is ugly, but other people have beautiful bodies. Healthy is when you see that we all have the same garbage inside ourselves: Nobody's liver would win the Miss Universe contest. This contemplation is helpful because it's a guardian. It protects you from inappropriate lust. There are so many people out there you could feel lust for, but if you acted on it you'd create a lot of trouble. Even if you're not practicing celibacy, you need a way to guard yourself against that kind of vagrant lust. So the next time you see an attractive person, instead of weaving all sorts of narratives from the ideas and associations you've developed around beauty, it's good to teach yourself other narratives, other associations. Right under the skin, what have you got? You've got all these blood vessels and nerves and uck! And as you go deeper, it's gets more uck! And what do you gain out of lusting for that? Why would you want it?
This sort of contemplation really goes against the grain, which is one of the reasons why it's useful to reflect on over and over and over again. Ajaan Maha Boowa keeps making the point: Don't count the number of times you've reflected on the foulness of the body. Just keep doing it until it's done its job. After all, our lusting after the human body is what led us to be born. This is what keeps us wanting to come back, and it makes us do really stupid things. So this contemplation is a useful tool to have in your arsenal. It's a useful new set of perceptions to develop. Our perceptions of beauty are dangerous, so it's good to learn how to see that beautiful bodies are not really beautiful. All you have to do is look inside a little bit and you see all kinds of stuff that can kill the lust if you really allow yourself to look at the body as a whole, and not just at the few parts you tend to focus on as being attractive.
The fourth guardian meditation is recollection of death. For most people this is pretty disturbing and depressing, but it's meant to be used in a way that's inspiring, that helps us to follow the path beyond death to the deathless. Remind yourself that we've got this practice that allows us to prepare for death and transcend it. Have you fully developed it? Are you really prepared? And the answer is almost always No. Okay, then, you've got work to do.
This is a good antidote for laziness. There's a great sutta where the Buddha talks about eight reasons for laziness and eight reasons for being diligent, and for both lists the external conditions are the same. You can be lazy because you're feeling sick; you can be lazy because you are about to go on a trip; you can be lazy because you've just gotten back from a trip; you can be lazy because you just recovered from an illness; you can be lazy because you haven't eaten enough; you can be lazy because you've eaten too much. But you can also use those circumstances to remind yourself: "I don't have much time." When you just recover from an illness, instead of saying, "I'm still weak, I'm not quite well yet, let me rest," you remind yourself: "I could get sick again. I could have a relapse, but at least now I've some strength, let me give this strength to the practice." If you haven't eaten enough, remind yourself, "The body is light; I'm not spending all that time and energy digesting my food, so I've got more energy now for the practice." You've got the right conditions for sitting very quietly, very still.
So your attitude is what's going to make the difference between whether the circumstances you've got right now are reasons for laziness or reasons for diligence. When you remind yourself that you don't know how much time you've got, it should stir you to action — so that when the time comes, when you really do have to go, you're ready, prepared. You've got the concentration, you've got the power of discernment, you've got the strength of mind to deal with whatever comes your way.
If you sit around saying, "Please may I not die, please may I not die," someday you'll still have to die no matter how much you plead. A wiser attitude would be: "Please may I be ready when the time comes. May I have the strength to deal with any difficulty that might come my way." Then you realize that this is something you have in your power: to work on those strengths. After all, we've got the example of how the Buddha died. This is why these two recollections — recollection of the Buddha and recollection of death — go well together. The Buddha shows you how you can prepare. You look at the way he died: one last trip through all the jhanas. He died with no suffering at all and gained total release. It's possible for a human being to do this. If you think that comparing yourself to the Buddha is too much of a stretch, think about the members of the Sangha. You can read the verses of the elder monks and the elder nuns. Some of them were pretty miserable, total losers in meditation at first, and yet they were able to pull themselves together. They could do it; you can do it.
So these four contemplations are guardian meditations to bring wisdom into your perception of things, the labels and ideas you bring to your experience. The more you develop them, then the better the set of associations, the better the set of narratives you bring to, say, just the fact you're breathing, or the fact you're seeing, hearing, tasting, or touching things in the present moment. In other words, what you bring into the present moment is going to make all the difference.
Today, Ajahn Thanissro hosted a daylong on 'recognizing the Dhamma' based off of a study guide by the same name. The first half of the day was devoted to meditation, while the remainder was dedicated to covering the material. There were a lot of things covered throughout the day, and I've forgotten more than I remember, but the framework of the material was helpful. One of the strong points of Buddhist contemplativism, in my opinion, is the depth and structure with which the Buddha's contemplative practices and the ideas underlying them are laid out on the Pali Canon; and Ajahn Thanissaro is particularly skilled at collecting complementary teachings together in a clear, concise, and practical way.
The daylong both reaffirmed my appreciation for Buddhism and made me feel a bit discouraged by highlighting the sheer amount of work I still have to do. For me, the main thing I got from it all was that I really need to motivate myself more. Going through the passages in Recognizing the Dhamma, everything sounded so simple. But I know from experience that putting most of these things into practice is a lot easier said than done, and I felt a sense of shame in how lazy I've been in my practice. I feel like I've let myself down. And worst of all, I feel like I've let others down. I want to get serious about my practice, but at the same time, there are so many TV shows I need to catch up on and I can't stop thinking about what I'm going to do for breakfast tomorrow before mass. It seems like my life revolves around sensual pleasures and planning for the next pleasant experience.
Just about everything I do, in some shape or form, revolves around pleasure, even my suffering. It's not a novel thought by any means; but it's the first time I've really understood it on an intuitive level. Take something simple and innocuous like bike riding, for example. Riding in and of itself is pleasurable, especially on a nice day and a pleasant trail. Working out my body is pleasurable too, getting me in better shape — making me feel better about myself, which is psychologically pleasurable — and producing endorphins, which is both physically and psychologically pleasurable. But when biking ceases to be pleasurable, that absence of pleasure is a form of suffering. If I start to develop pain while riding, I suffer. If the trail is too busy, I suffer. If the weather changes for the worse, I suffer. My pleasure is interrupted or transformed into its opposite.
Same with just about anything, really. When I go out with my friends, it's with the expectation that their company is going to be pleasurable, as is the food we're going to eat, the beer we're going to drink, etc. But if the wrong people are around, or they don't have the particular kind of beer I like, suffering, unsatisfactoriness (a mild form to be sure). And when I decide to stay home, it's generally because I'm feeling depressed or generally just shitty and the thought of being around people at that moment in time seems like anything but pleasurable.
I used to think Epicurus' hedonist philosophy was overly simplistic, reducing everything to the pleasure principle; but the more I think about it, the more profound and pragmatic I find it to be, and I find a lot of similarities between the middle way of Buddhism (i.e., the middle way between the two extremes of self-mortification and self-indulgence) and the hedonism of Epicurus.
Epicurus' philosophy, for example, was aimed at attaining ataraxia, peace of mind and freedom from fear, and aponia, the absence of pain, via a system of ethics, rational thinking/contemplation, and a secluded, moderate lifestyle. His hedonism wasn't so much unlimited indulgence in sensual pleasures as it was about balance. Epicurus himself held that the absence of pain was the highest pleasure (compare that to the idea of nibbana being the highest bliss a la Dhp 202-04), and he favoured static pleasure over dynamic pleasure. The difference is explained by Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy using hunger as an example:
Dynamic pleasures consist in the attainment of a desired end, the previous desire having been accompanied by pain. Static pleasures consist in a state of equilibrium, which results from the existence of the kind of state of affairs that would be desired if it were absent. I think one may say that the satisfying of hunger, while it is in progress, is a a dynamic pleasure while, but the state of quiescence which supervenes when hunger is completely satisfied is a static pleasure. Of these two kinds, Epicurus holds it more prudent to pursue the second, since it is unalloyed, and does not depend upon the existence of pain as a stimulus to desire. When the body is in a state of equilibrium, there is no pain; we should, therefore, aim at equilibrium and the quiet pleasures rather than the more violent joys. Epicurus, it seems, would wish, if it were possible, to be always in the state of having eaten moderately, never in that of voracious desire to eat. (233)
This doesn't mean, of course, that you constantly stuff your face, but that you eat moderately, just enough to keep the body from experiencing the pain of hunger but not so much that it experiences the pain of overeating. In fact, Epicurus himself, contrary to popular belief, bordered on asceticism, renouncing sex and living off of little more than bread and cheese. The Buddha had a similar attitude towards food (among other things), as well. For example, from AN 4.37:
And how does a monk know moderation in eating? There is the case where a monk, considering it appropriately, takes his food not playfully, nor for intoxication, nor for putting on bulk, nor for beautification, but simply for the survival & continuance of this body, for ending its afflictions, for the support of the holy life, thinking, 'I will destroy old feelings [of hunger] & not create new feelings [from overeating]. Thus I will maintain myself, be blameless, & live in comfort.' This is how a monk knows moderation in eating.
Just as we seem to instinctively avoid pain because it's unpleasant and causes us suffering (motivating us to be rid of it if at all possible), indulging too much in sensual pleasures can quickly become unpleasant, a source suffering. I eat too much of delicious food, my stomach hurts. I drink too much delicious beer, my head hurts. And it can even get more complicated when we derive pleasure from pain itself. But at the heart of it is our desire for pleasure, and boredom is one of our biggest enemies, forever driving us to seek new pleasures—an endless cycle of grasping at shadows to fill a primordial void that can't psychologically or physiologically be filled. Thinking about it this way, though, is a little depressing.
Sure, we may find new and entertaining things that give us some happiness and pleasure and to help time go by; but in the end, it's really the same old shit that never truly satisfies us. Not only do we have to endlessly consume food to keep our bodies alive, eventually getting bored of eating the same thing, and often eating things that might taste good but aren't particularly good for us (causing suffering in the future), we also have to endlessly consume experiences that eventually bore us and/or aren't good for us in the long run. And none of them, in the final analysis, are truly satisfying—we go on craving and consuming, craving and consuming, until our bodies/minds just eventually give out.
Our thirst for pleasure seems unquenchable, and realizing this on a deep, existential level makes me appreciate philosophies that try to steer the ship of our desires away from the rocky shores of sensual pleasure and towards a true and lasting happiness that isn't dependent on any conditions whatsoever. Pleasant experiences aren't evil in and of themselves, of course; but if we spend most of our time and energy planning for them and acquiring them rather than training our minds, we're ultimately setting ourselves up for disappointment, something I think consistent with the spirit of James 4.