The Simile of the Good Car

If one wishes to reach a distant destination such as the Cairngorms National Park, from London, one will need several things: A car with five good wheels, some fuel, and some money to buy more fuel on the way. One will also need to know how to drive, and study the route.

Similarly, to reach a distant destination such as nibbāna from one’s current location in saṃsāra, wherever that might be, one will need several things: A car with five good wheels, some fuel, and some money to buy more fuel n the way. One will also need to know how to drive, and study the route.

Here is the meaning of the simile:-

A car with Five Good Wheels

One needs to have a human body during the era of the Buddha’s Dispensation and be reasonably healthy. If someone is chronically sick or mentally ill, it may not be possible for them to meditate strenuously enough.

Just as a car needs four good wheels, and a fifth — the steering wheel — a meditator needs to observe the four precepts: abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and unwholesome speech, and the fifth — abstaining from intoxicants that cause heedlessness. An unmindful and heedless person is incapable of making any worthwhile progress in meditation practice. Ideally, a meditator should observe the eight precepts by abstaining from afternoon meals, indulging in entertainments, and using cosmetics, jewellery, and perfumes.

Some Fuel for the Journey

At least one will need sufficient fuel to reach the next service station, where one can buy some more fuel. A meditator needs both faith and a generous spirit. A mean-spirited, excessively critical, or aggressive person cannot even begin the journey. Kind and generous people, whether they are Buddhists or not, if they are open-minded, intelligent, and respectful, can soon make progress and increase their faith in the teachings. If they begin the journey with faith in the teachings and the meditation instructor, they will gain in confidence as they make progress in the early stages of insight. Acquiring faith through practice is like having money to buy more fuel whenever one needs to.

Knowing How to Drive

Before setting out on a long journey, one should learn how to drive safely. One should attend regular meditation classes to learn the technique from an experienced meditation teacher. Learning how to meditate, like learning how to drive, is not something that one can learn properly only by reading books. One should practise the basic exercises given by the meditation teacher, and develop both skill and self-confidence by practising meditation for many hours.

Some drivers can pass their driving test after only five or ten lessons; others may have to retake the test repeatedly, and need to have many lessons. However clever one thinks one is, it is foolish to get into a car and start driving without taking any driving lessons. Even if one is not full of self-confidence, if one practises repeatedly, one will become competent sooner or later.

Studying the Route

Just as there are many different routes from London to reach the Cairngorms, there are many different meditation routes to reach nibbāna. Just as all routes from London to the Cairngorms must go North, the route to nibbāna from saṃsāra must go away from sensual indulgence and towards renunciation of pleasure. It must go away from laziness and towards stirring up energy.

One can study the route thoroughly beforehand, or one can make inquiries on the way. Either method will work provided that one studies carefully and makes a thorough investigation by putting appropriate and intelligent questions to the meditation instructor.

Reaching the Destination

A long journey may not be completed in a single day. To reach the Cairngorms one may drive fast as far as Edinburgh or Perth, then one will have to stay overnight, and continue on the next day. At some point, one may have to leave the car and walk or climb to the final destination on foot. However long the journey may be, if one continues in the right direction, one will get closer to the goal.

Most meditators will not reach nibbāna on their first meditation retreat, nor even after many retreats. It depends on many factors. However far they are from the destination, what is certain is that if they continue to meditate diligently they will be getting closer day by day. Conversely, if they do not begin the journey, or give up whenever it gets difficult, they will never gain any worthwhile insights, let alone reach the destination of nibbāna.

False Teachings

There are some false meditation teachers who say that the goal is easy to reach if you follow their instructions (and, no doubt, pay them a good fee). Other false teachers will say that there is no need to meditate, or that the goal is unreachable nowadays, so just make merit by giving donations and doing other good deeds.

Do not listen to false teachers. The way to nibbāna is hard for some, not so hard for others, and easy for no one, but it is impossible for those who hold wrong views. One can buy a fake degree in psychology on the Internet, or one can study hard for six years or longer to gain a genuine degree. One would expect to make at least as much effort to understand one’s own psyche, which is a prerequisite before attaining nibbāna. To put an end to craving, one has to understand what craving is and how to relinquish it.

A Question of Balance

Understanding the Middle Path

On the full-moon night of Vesākha, the Bodhisatta become the Buddha after meditating the entire night at the culmination of a six year struggle to find the right path. Thereafter, he spent forty-five years propagating his “Middle Path” guiding others along the unique way that he had discovered.

In fact, he had been searching much longer than six years to find this middle path. Since the time of his vow at the feet of the Buddha Dīpaṅkara, ninety-one aeons ago, as the ascetic Sumedha, he had dedicated 100% of his efforts throughout many lives to this quest for enlightenment. Even before meeting the Buddha Dīpaṅkara, the Bodhisatta had practised meditation earnestly throughout many lives to accumulate perfections, and at the time of meeting the Buddha Dīpaṅkara he was an accomplished ascetic with mystic powers.

After his enlightenment he taught this “Middle Path” for more than forty-five years until his death at the age of over eighty. He called it the “Middle Path” because it avoided the two extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification, not because it requires only a moderate amount of effort to follow it. The facts clearly show that to follow the “Middle Path” requires a great deal of effort and dedication, though it does, of course, also require that effort to be well-balanced, equanimous, and rightly directed. It is not a path for fanatics or zealots, but one for pious devotees, serious students, and ardent meditators.

When we talk of a well-balanced approach to practice, one should not conjure up visions of balancing in a hammock on a sunny afternoon, nor of sitting on a fence not knowing which way to jump, but the balance of a long-distance athlete who runs as fast as possible with the least possible waste of energy, or the balance of a worker who climbs a ladder with a heavy load of bricks on his shoulder.

The Three Characteristics

First we should learn something about why we need to meditate, and what we are aiming to achieve by meditation. If our aim is wrong, our practice will be wrong, or even if it is right, we may give up easily if we don’t get the results that we expect.

The aim of the Buddha’s Middle Path of mindfulness meditation or insight meditation is to understand things as they really are, and thus remove craving, which is the cause of suffering. In short, we meditate in order to realise the three characteristics of imperma­nence (anicca), unsatis­factori­ness (dukkha), and not-self (anatta). The purpose is not mental tranquillity, to enjoy a stress-free life, or to make merit.

One should have this basic understanding that the First Noble Truth — the truth of suffering — needs to be understood; the Second Noble Truth — the truth of the cause (craving) needs to be abandoned; the Third Noble Truth — the truth of cessation (nibbāna) — needs to be realised; and the Fourth Noble Truth — the truth of the Path — needs to be developed. If one has this basic understanding before one begins, one will not be surprised, disappointed, or alarmed if one discovers one or other of these three characteristics. On the contrary, one will be encouraged at the thought that one is making gradual progress on the Path to the end of suffering.

Respect

Not all Bodhisattas have to endure six hard years of self-mortifying practice. It depends on their past kamma. The reason that Siddhattha Gotama had to struggle in this way is told in the Ghaṭikāra Sutta of the Majjhimanikāya. In that discourse, the Buddha relates to the Venerable Ānanda how, in a previous life, he himself was reborn as a Brahmin youth named Jotipāla, whose companion since childhood was a potter (that is the meaning of Ghaṭikāra — a maker of pots). This potter was a devout follower of the Buddha Kassapa, and a Non-returner, who supported his blind and aged parents by his simple craft. One day, Ghaṭikāra repeatedly urged his friend, Jotipāla, to go and visit the Buddha Kassapa, who was staying near by. Jotipāla, however, being proud due to his high caste family, was reluctant to visit a teacher of another religion. He remarked, “What is the use of going to see this bald-headed recluse?” Eventually, however, he gave in to the repeated urging of his friend, went to see the Buddha, gained faith in the Dhamma, and became a bhikkhu in his dispensation. It was due to those disrespectful words regarding the most noble of beings, that Siddhattha Gotama had to struggle for six years before finding the Middle Path.

I hope you can see, therefore, the important role that respect pays in the practice of the Dhamma. If we listen respectfully to the teacher’s instructions, we will learn much more quickly, and avoid unskilful paths that only lead to more suffering. Even if the teacher explains something wrongly, if one listens respectfully, one will not be misled, but will realise that the teacher hasn’t explained it very clearly, or that one may have misunderstood what he meant. One will seek a second opinion or refer to the relevant books to clarify the teacher’s instruction, or proceed carefully, trusting one’s own experience.

Continuity

Nothing worthwhile can be achieve in a short time unless one has done a lot of preparation. Consider how long the Bodhisatta had to strive to achieve his goal. To gain enlightenment took him only about twelve hours of continuous meditation once he had gained the right method, but to get to that advanced stage of preparedness he had to struggle hard for much longer.

Someone on a Buddhist forum, referring to the Venerable Ānanda’s striving for Arahantship, wrote that after practising walking meditation for the whole night without achieving his goal, he gave up and went to rest.  I don’t see it the same way. Venerable Ānanda didn’t give up at all. After practising walking meditation for the whole night he reflected, “The Buddha said that my perfections are mature enough to gain Arahantship, yet though I have tried my hardest for the whole night, I haven’t yet reached the goal. I must have been exerting too hard, making the mind distracted and restless. I need to regain mental balance by adopting a posture more conducive to tranquillity.” So he went and sat on the edge of his bed, and lay down to rest the body for a while. He did not give up mindfulness for one moment, but continued to note mindfully all actions and movements of the body as he adjusted his posture. After sitting on his bed, he gained Once-returning, Non-returning and, finally, Arahantship before his head touched the pillow. This very rapid attainment by the Venerable Ānanda was the result of continuity of practice throughout the whole night without a break. It was not the result of “giving up.”

Be careful when you listen to this story. Enlightenment is not to be gained by lying down on the bed — unless you have excellent knowledge and wisdom like Venerable Ānanda, and have been striving hard all night practising intensive walking meditation.

When we practise meditation seriously, we should be prepared for an endurance race, not a sprint. Ten days is nothing if we compare it to six years. To gain enlightenment and escape from rebirth could not be such a simple task. If we speak of striving for at least eighteen hours a day, continuously for many days, people say that we are fanatics, that we are not teaching the Middle Path. What do you think? Are we fanatics, or are those people just lazy and far away from understanding the right method?

Cultivating Suitability

The meditator’s attitude should be very different to the average person. The average person quickly becomes bored with meditation if asked to practice for the entire day and late into the night. It is not easy even for experienced meditators to sustain effort for a long time. One needs to cultivate the right conditions to stir up effort and deepen concentration. A meditator should avoid worldly thoughts and activities. This is doubly difficult to achieve at home. It is also hard to achieve in many monasteries that I have stayed at. The Buddha’s advice is to go to a forest, to the root of a tree, or to an empty place.

One should join a meditation course, where like-minded people are also striving to develop concentration and insight. If one has the moral support of other meditators, it will help one’s own practice. Staying alone is beneficial, but only if one is strongly inclined to meditation. Otherwise, it is better to derive some support from others. It was with this in mind that I started the “Association for Insight Meditation.” By associating with others who also want to gain insight, one will practise harder than if one associates with those who want to enjoy sensual pleasures.

A meditator should avoid all talking. Talking for five minutes can spoil one’s practice for the entire day. Even talk about meditation should be limited to what is necessary for instruction. One should eat plain food that suits one’s own metabolism. Two light meals — breakfast and lunch are enough for a meditator. In the afternoon one can drink fruit juice or take honey if one becomes famished.

The climate may be a problem for westerners who visit Burma. In the hot season, go to a meditation centre at higher altitude. Taunggyi in Shan State is much more comfortable than Rangoon.

One should seek out a teacher who can give inspiring discourses, and/or inspire by example. “Talking is easy, doing is difficult,” as the saying goes.

Remembering Previous Successes

There are many factors that contribute to good results. Every meditator is unique, and only a teacher with the higher knowledge of a Buddha can know exactly what instructions to give at any moment. Other teachers give advice that is good, but may not be what the meditator needs to hear at that moment.

My mother took me for weekly swimming lessons for many weeks, but I did not like the instructor and made little progress. Then one day, while playing in the sea, a wave picked me up and I realised that I could keep my head above water and my feet off of the ground. It was not very long before I could swim quite well.

Learning to meditate is an acquired skill like learning to swim or riding a bicycle. Even the best teacher can only point out the way, and offer tips and encouragement, the student must practise the meditation exercises for himself or herself, and discover the right method that keeps the mental faculties in perfect balance.

When you achieve some results, such as being able to sit or walk for long periods without interruption, or if the mind becomes unusually calm and still, make a mental note of the conditions at that time. Recollect that experience and the conditions that led to it when trying to regain concentration at a later date. Did you eat your meal with special mindfulness that day, or walk slower than usual?

Developing the Factors of Enlightenment

These seven factors of enlightenment are weak in the average person who first takes up meditation: mindfulness (sati), investigation (dhammavicaya), effort (viriya), joy (pīti), tranquillity (passaddhi)concentration (samādhi), and equanimity (upekkhā). They need to be developed through sustained and continuous practice. Mindfulness is indispensable. It is the factor that keeps the others in balance. Investigation, effort, and joy all excite the mind and stir it up to strive harder. Tranquillity, concentration, and equanimity cool the excited mind to make it focus deeper. When the energy is low we must use investigation, effort, and joy to brighten the mind and stir it up. When the mind becomes too fired-up, we must use tranquillity, concentration, and equanimity to cool it down before it overheats. Mindfulness keeps checking the current state of the mind to know which factor is in excess and which is deficient.

Enduring Patience is the Greatest Austerity

Renunciation of pleasure is hard for human beings, but tolerance of pain and discomfort is much harder. No one likes pain and discomfort, fatigue, hunger and thirst, excessive heat or cold. A meditator must endure these hardships with patience. If the mind shrinks from facing up to them, as it always does when it is weak, the meditator must keep stirring up effort, courage, and determination. If severe pain comes, try to sit with it for a little longer. You should regard it as your best friend because it is the means by which you can gain freedom from suffering. Remember, the truth of suffering must be understood. So when suffering comes you have a precious chance to gain insight. If you shy away from it, the pain will be unbearable, and crush your will to go on. If you take it as a challenge to test the maturity of your practice, it will lead to rapid progress.

Courageous Determination

Each time you participate in a retreat, whether for a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks, you are developing your perfections. The Bodhisatta practised meditation throughout many lives to attain the perfections that he needed to achieve his goal. Perhaps you already have sufficient perfections to achieve your goal, as the Venerable Ānanda had, but you must not give up. You may need to go to work and earn money to support your family, but each time you get a chance to meditate seriously, you must take it and practise again and again. Keep doing the practice until you break through and gain some insight knowledge. Without applying heat, nothing ever gets cooked.

When suffering arises, do not shrink from it, but increase your efforts and spend more time for formal meditation practice. If pain arises, don’t change your position at once, but change your attitude. The pain is not your enemy, but a reminder of the universal truth of suffering. If insight can be gained, suffering can be transcended. As it says in the introduction to the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta: “This, monks, is the only way for the purification of living-beings, for the transcendence of grief and lamentation, for the extinguishing of pain and sorrow, for attaining the right method, for the realisation of nibbāna, namely: the four foundations of mindfulness.” Do not seek for any other method; avoidance just delays success further into the future.

What is Genuine Vipassanā Meditation?

There are many discourses on meditation, but the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is perhaps the most important one. Sati means “mindfulness” or “awareness,” and upaṭṭhāna means setting up or “establishing.” So the discourse is about the setting up of mindfulness.

There are four foundations of mindfulness: 1) Body, 2) Feelings, 3) Thoughts, and 4) Mental phenomena.

Mindfulness of the Body

Mindfulness of respiration (ānāpānassati) is just one of several meditation objects in the section on mindfulness of the body. One can also contemplate the four postures of standing, walking, sitting, or lying down, or all daily activities such as moving the limbs, looking here and there, eating, drinking, etc.

The Mahāsi meditation method analyses the body in terms of the four elements: earth (solidity), water (fluidity), fire (temperature), and air (motion). In sitting one contemplates the element of motion in the rising and falling movements of the abdomen; in walking meditation one observes the element of motion in the movements of the feet.

Less frequently taught methods analyse the body in terms of its 32 repulsive components: head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin, etc., or compare it to corpses in various stages of decay.

Mindfulness of Feelings

“How, monks, does a monk dwell contemplating feelings? Here, monk, a monk, when feeling a pleasant feeling he knows, ‘I feel a pleasant feeling.’ When feeling a painful feeling he knows, ‘I feel a painful feeling.’ When feeling a neutral feeling he knows, ‘I feel a neutral feeling.’ When feeling a pleasant sensual feeling he knows, ‘I feel a pleasant sensual feeling.’ When feeling a pleasant non-sensual feeling he knows, ‘I feel a pleasant non-sensual feeling.’ When feeling an unpleasant sensual feeling he knows, ‘I feel an unpleasant sensual feeling.’ When feeling an unpleasant non-sensual feeling he knows, ‘I feel an unpleasant non-sensual feeling.’ When feeling a neutral sensual feeling he knows, ‘I feel a neutral sensual feeling.’ When feeling a neutral non-sensual feeling he knows, ‘I feel a neutral non-sensual feeling.’”

Mindfulness of Thoughts

A meditator must also be mindful of thoughts (cittānupassana satipaṭṭhāna). Knowing a lustful thought as a lustful thought, an angry thought as an angry thought, etc. Before being able to do this effectively, one should first establish mindfulness on the body and on feelings.

Mindfulness of Mental Objects

The five hindrances — sensual desire, ill-will, laziness, restlessness, and doubt — are one aspect of mindfulness of mental objects. Positive states such as energy, joy, tranquillity, bliss, equanimity should also be contemplated and known whenever they occur.

What is Insight?

Insight is the wisdom that arises when concentration and mindfulness have been firmly established on one or more of the four foundations of mindfulness. When one is able to observe mental and physical phenomena with equanimity, one can see them as they truly are (yathābhūta ñāṇadassana), revealing the three universal characteristics of impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and not-self (anatta).

Until one reaches this relatively high stage, one is not really practising insight meditation, but just establishing mindfulness. However, if you wish to call it “insight meditation” because that is your final goal, then that’s fine too, even though no insight has yet been gained.