Joseph Goldstein has been leading insight and loving kindness meditation retreats worldwide since 1974. With my teacher Jack Kornfield, he was a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Since 1967, he has studied and practiced different forms of Buddhist meditation under venerable teachers from India, Burma and Tibet. Among his many publications is one of my favorite meditation books, One Dharma. This Dharma talk is adapted from the first chapter in Joseph’s most recent book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening.
Titled Ardency: The Long-Enduring Mind, this chapter reminds us of the Buddha’s four foundations of mindfulness: the body, feelings, mind and dhammas or categories of experience. When we are mindful of even one of these four fields, we live securely, but when we are not aware of them, we often become lost in unwholesome reactions, creating suffering for ourselves and others.
Adapting the Buddha’s own words:
A bhikkhu (or disciple) abides contemplating the body, [feelings, the mind and the dhammas (or teachings)], ardent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world.
The word ardent implies a balanced and sustained application of effort, along with a passionate devotion because we realize the value and importance of an endeavor. The Buddha is suggesting that we practice with great care, continuity and perseverance.
This advice goes against the stream of our culture’s emphasis on quick learning and immediate results. Recently, a friend showed me a meditative device called “Muse.” When it’s attached to the head, the device allows meditators to see images of their brain waves on an App and to receive positive feedback whenever the brain waves become tranquil and stable. The Buddha’s emphasis on ardency moves beyond this kind of secular convenience and envisions a lifetime commitment to comprehending the intricacies of the heart and mind.
Joseph refers to the great Chinese Ch’an master Hsu Yun, who attained enlightenment at the age of 56 and then taught mindfulness practice for 64 years, until his death at the age of 120. Hsu Yun referred to the quality of ardency as “the long-enduring mind,” which sustains and nourishes meditators during the many ups and downs of practice.
According to Joseph, we can cultivate ardency by reflecting upon three principles: the preciousness of the Dharma, the impermanence of all phenomena, and the law of karma.
If we properly understand the Dharma, we realize that it is the source of happiness. Ajahn Mun, a renowned Thai forest monk, taught that understanding the mind is the same as comprehending the Dharma, and that awareness of the mind’s deepest truths is the attainment of awakening. A related reflection that bolsters ardency is to consider how rare it is in this lifetime to connect with teachings that liberate the heart and mind. An esteemed Tibetan Dzogchen master in the 20th century, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, reminded his disciples:
Ask yourself how many of the billions of inhabitants of this planet have any idea of how rare it is to have been born as a human being. How many of those who understand the rarity of human birth even think of using that chance to practice the Dharma? How many of those who think of practice actually do? How many of those who start continue? … But once you see the unique opportunity that human life can bring, you will definitely direct all your energy into reaping its true worth by putting the Dharma into practice.
When we reflect upon the preciousness of the Dharma, we generate great respect for our fellow practitioners and for ourselves. This respect leads to greater caring and ardency for each precious moment. Each person in Insight Meditation Houston sangha contributes energetically to the efforts of everyone in the group. You may notice that it is easier to concentrate on the sensations of the breath when you sit in company with fellow meditators than when you practice alone.
Another way to strengthen our ardor is to reflect on the impermanence of all things. Notice how attached we become to people, pets, possessions, feelings, opinions or bodily conditions. A while ago, Mark and I accompanied our beloved dog Marisol as our vet put her to sleep. In the midst of our grief, it was extremely helpful to remember the Buddhist principle of impermanence-that nothing we have, no one we know, and no state of mind is exempt from change. Nothing can prevent the universal process of birth, growth, decay and death. Mark and I felt connected to all those who have ever lost a loved one. We recited comforting words from the Tibetan Book of the Dead about letting go into the clear light:
Remember the clear light, the pure clear white light from which everything else in the universe comes, to which everything in the universe returns, the original nature of your own mind: the natural state of the universe unmanifest. Let go into the clear light, trust it, merge with it. It is your own true nature; it is home…. Remember the clear light, the pure, bright shining white light of your own true nature; it is deathless…. No matter where or how far you wander, the light is only a split second, a half-breath away. It is never too late to recognize the clear light.
Now Mark and I are devoted to Marisol’s successor, Amanda, an affectionate, white fluffy rescue dog. As we open our hearts to her, we recognize that our dear canine companion will be with us for an uncertain amount of time. If we don’t deeply understand the truth of impermanence, we devote our lives and even our meditation practice to desiring possessions, experiences, and relationships with others. We get ensnared in the appearances of samsara, and we solidify our sense of self, destroying a sense of inner peace.
The third reflection that leads to ardor in our practice is pondering and understanding the law of karma—that all of our volitional actions, of body, speech and mind, bear fruit depending on the motivation associated with them. Actions rooted in greed, hatred or ignorance lead sooner or later to unpleasant outcomes. Actions rooted in generosity, love and wisdom result in happiness and wellbeing.
We can see karmic results in daily interactions. If I smile and greet someone on my morning walk, the person usually responds with a friendly reply. If I speak impatiently at a checkout counter, the sales clerk may react with tension, and what could have been a pleasant interaction becomes rushed and impersonal.
According to the law of karma, the only things that truly belong to us are our actions and their results. The first line of Buddhist teachings in the Dhammapada says:
Mind is the forerunner of all things. Speak or act with an impure mind, suffering follows as the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox. Mind is the forerunner of all things. Speak or act with a peaceful mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never leaves.
Korean Zen master Seung Sahn Sunim taught paradoxically, “There is no right or wrong, but right is right and wrong is wrong.” It is not enough to have an understanding of karma; we need to practice applying it in our lives. When we are about to act or speak, and when thoughts or emotions are strong, it can be challenging to remember to investigate and reflect upon our motivation. With practice, we learn to ask ourselves, “Is this mind state or action skillful or unskillful?” “How can I speak in the most skillful way possible?” “Is this action something to cultivate or to abandon?”
What questions arise when you contemplate these teachings about ardent practice? How can you reflect on the preciousness of the Dharma, on impermanence, and on karma?