2021-04-05 Mindfulness of Breathing (69) Practice as Onward Leading
3:04PM Apr 5, 2021
In these almost 70 sessions, we've gone through the 16 steps of mindfulness of breathing. The most famous discourse where these 16 steps occur is a discourse that has much more in it. It has a second half, where the practice is discussed as how it follows up – how it continues – after being well established in the 16 steps. Or, it continues and describes part of the wider unfolding that happens while we're doing the 16 steps. The second half presents more richness and fullness.
Partly, it does so by harmonizing, bringing together and showing how other aspects of early Buddhist practice come into play in doing mindfulness of breathing. In particular there are two – the four foundations of mindfulness, how they are fulfilled through this breathing meditation – and how it leads to the seven factors of awakening.
Inherent in this discussion – this second half of the instructions, or the description of practice – is something that's called the "onward leading" nature of the Dharma. There's a very famous description of the Dharma, where it says that it's "immediate, inviting inspection, onward leading, to be known for oneself."
This "onward leading" could also imply that it "carries us along." It isn't so much that we're the agent of developing and growing in the practice, as it is that we enter the Dharma stream. We enter the stream of meditation – and somehow the meditation, the Dharma, carries us along.
A simple way of understanding this in one aspect, is that most people spend their days preoccupied – maybe with tension, attachment, wanting – the mind racing, spinning, afraid, angry, resentful – all kinds of ways in which we're caught in phenomena and activities. There's a lot of tension – physical, emotional, and mental tension. If we begin to relax that preoccupation – all that entanglement with everything – then it isn't that nothing happens. But there starts to be an unwinding, dissolving, fading away of attachment.
That fading away, dissolving of attachment begins a change. There's an onward movement, onward moving phenomenon. As we change, things open up within us. Qualities and capacities we have that were submerged or repressed by our fears, attachments, preoccupations, entanglements have a chance to begin showing themselves. They become stronger. It isn't so much that we're trying to make them become stronger, but they begin unfolding and moving.
It's wonderful to feel in meditation slowly, day by day or whatever way we might feel it, that there's an opening, releasing, growing and maturing of something quite beautiful inside. It's like a plant that has finally come into the sunlight. It has been in the dark for a long, long time, and the plant grows and flowers.
This natural description of a flower coming to full blossom is inherent in the teachings of the Buddha, where there is, over and over again, reference to organic movement, growth, unfolding, and flowing phenomena as we enter into this Dharma path. One of them is in fact, the growth of a plant. We can cultivate the plant, but we don't tug on it to make it grow.
A frequent metaphor is that of a river or stream coming down from a mountain. If it rains on the mountain top, rains enough, then the raindrops start to flow down the side of that mountain. They join together and form little streamlets. And streamlets become streams. The streams become rivers. The rivers become bigger, until finally, they come down to the plains and become wide, big, silent rivers flowing along into the ocean. Water has a natural flow – the flow of gravity. That metaphor is used for getting into the stream, the flow of the Dharma. It will carry us along.
As we go into the Dharma, these qualities inside of us become bigger and stronger, and also more silent. The metaphor of silence is the silence that happens within when there's no conceit. When we're no longer caught up and preoccupied with me, myself and mine. It doesn't mean that we're physically silent. It means a silencing of extra agitation that spills over into the world in all kinds of noisy ways.
This flow down the river – entering the stream is one of the metaphors – with the first experience of real liberation, real freedom, a person is changed forever. Now they know what the stream is. They know where the current is. They know the directions, and how to be in the current that is going to carry them onward to full liberation – the onward leading nature of the Dharma.
In ānāpānasati there's one way that concentration practice is onward leading, and another way that insight practice is onward leading. The two go together. In concentration practice, onward leading is described as the "arising of gladness" when we're no longer caught up in the hindrances. The mind is no longer distracted all the time. We're glad that we're finally present.
That gladness is the condition out of which flows joy. If we really feel that joy, it's a condition out of which flows a deeper tranquility, relaxing, and calming. With that deeper calming, there is happiness. With happiness, there arises concentration.
The way that these five – gladness, joy, tranquility, happiness and concentration – are talked about in the suttas, the Buddha's teaching, is that they are not something the meditator is doing or making happen directly. But rather, we're creating the conditions where this onward leading movement through gladness, joy, tranquility, happiness and concentration can unfold on its own. That's the concentration path.
The insight path is described best, I think, by the last four steps of mindfulness of breathing. There is insight with the observation of inconstancy. There is fading away of attachments that depend on things having more constancy. There is the ending, cessation of certain attachments. And then there is letting go – relinquishing our investment and belief in those attachments. This is described as a natural flow. It is not something we do, but something we're observing and watching happen.
In ānāpānasati the flow of practice moves through concentration, and then leads to this insight of deep observing. What the meditator does all along, mostly is just staying with the breath, being with the breath. There is a little intentionality to stay focused on the breath. This is expressed in the repeated way in which the grammar of the phrase having to do with being mindful of breathing occurs. It says, "One trains," and then there is a quotation of what I'm doing and saying to myself, "I will breathe in." "One trains, I will breathe out."
One will engage over and over again, no matter what happens as we go through all these 16 stages. We're not getting sidetracked by anything. We're allowing all the other things to happen in this onward leading nature. We are recognizing, allowing the tranquility, relaxation, joy, happiness, gladness, concentration, the liberations, and observations that happen.
All along, the dedication is simply just staying with a breath, "I will breathe in. I will breathe out. I will stay connected to it." This is where the home is for people doing mindfulness of breathing.
It's not exclusive. The attention is open and aware so that this wider field is allowed to manifest and to grow, and the Dharma that is onward leading can appear. To keep us relaxed – not caught in anything, not preoccupied – we keep staying with the breath, in a relaxed, open, committed way. Not clinging to it, but staying open, staying there – so we don't drift off and get caught in other things.
We have this relaxed, open, steady, continuous dedication, love for, devotion for, just breathing one breath at a time. Of course, we'll get distracted, but just whenever we can, to come back, "I will stay here with the breathing. This is what I'm doing." Then we start entering into the Dharma that is onward leading – the flow that begins to unfold.
One of the things that it unfolds into is the core aspect of the four foundations of mindfulness. How mindfulness of breathing connects with four foundations will be the topic for tomorrow.
I hope that you will be open to not being the agent of change – not be the one in charge of making things happen, fixing things all the time. But that you go through the day with some room – to allow things to unfold. To allow yourself to unfold. To make room for yourself and room for the Dharma , which you cannot do if you're constantly caught up in being in charge, being the agent or the subject of your preoccupations.