Meditation, as the term is used in common parlance, is the repeated focusing of attention upon an image, a word or a theme in order to calm the mind and consider the meaning of that image or word. In the Buddhist practice of insight meditation, this focusing of attention also has another purpose - to more fully understand the nature of the mind. This can be done by using the meditation object as a still reference point to help in revealing the attitudes that are otherwise buried beneath the mind's surface activity. The Buddha encouraged his disciples to use their own bodies and minds as objects of meditation. A common object, for example, is the sensation associated with the breath during the process of normal breathing. If one sits still, closes the eyes and focuses on the breath, in due time clarity and calm will arise. In this state of mind, tensions, expectations and habitual moods can be more clearly discerned and, through the practice of gentle but penetrative enquiry, resolved.
The Buddha taught that it was possible to maintain meditation in the course of daily activity as well as while sitting still in one place. One can focus attention on the movement of the body, the physical feelings that arise, or the thoughts and moods that flow through the mind. This mobile attentiveness is called ‘mindfulness’.
The Buddha explained that through mindfulness one realises an attention that is serene. Although it is centred on the body and mind it is dispassionate and not bound up with any particular physical or mental experience. This detachment is a foretaste of what Buddhists call Nibbana (or Nirvana) - a state of peace and happiness independent of circumstances. Nibbana is a ‘natural’ state, that is, it is not something we have to add to our true nature, it is the way the mind is when it is free from pressure and confused habits. Just as waking up dispels the dream state naturally, the mind that has become clear through mindfulness is no longer over-shadowed by obsessive thoughts, doubts and worries.
However, although mindfulness is the basic tool to use, we generally need some pointers as to how to establish the right objectivity about ourselves and how to assess what mindfulness reveals. This is the function of the wisdom-teachings of the Buddha.
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"Do not rely upon what you have heard proclaimed, or upon custom, or upon rumour, or upon scripture, or inference, or established principles, or clever reasoning, or favouring a pet theory. Do not be convinced by someone else's apparent intelligence, nor out of respect for a teacher ... When you yourself know what is wrong, foolish and unworthy, and what leads to harm and discontent, abandon it ... And when you yourself know what is right, develop it."
The most generally used wisdom-teachings of the Buddha are not statements about God or Ultimate Truth. The Buddha felt that such statements could lead to disagreement, controversy and even violence. Instead, Buddhist wisdom describes what we can all notice about life without having to adopt a belief. The teachings are to be tested against one's experience. Different people may find different ways of expressing Truth; what really counts is the validity of the experience and whether it leads to a wiser and more compassionate way of living. The teachings then serve as tools to clear the mind of misunderstanding. When the mind is clear, Ultimate Truth, in whatever way one finds to express it, becomes apparent.