Roadmap: How do we come to the end of suffering?
This article answers the question of how to come to the end of suffering, in summary form.
It contains multiple links to more extensive articles on each step. So keep this as a reference.
For beginners, just start with step one. Once step one feels ok, look at step two. The Buddha described the Path as a Gradual Training. Don't focus on the top of Mount Everest. Focus on putting in the foundations and rejoice in the good feeling that results from each small step.
First, let's look at a sutta by the Buddha:
"Meditators, I say that the destruction of undesirable qualities is for one who knows and sees....
Such is form, such its origin, such its passing away; such is feeling .... perception .... will ... consciousness, such its origin, such its passing away.
Meditators, when a meditator does not dwell devoted to development, even though such a wish as this might arise in her: 'Oh, that my mind might be liberated from undesirable qualities by non clinging!' Yet her mind is not liberated from undesirable qualities by non clinging. For what reason? It should be said: because of non development. Because of not developing what? Because of not developing:
the four right efforts
the four applications of mindfulness
the four foundations for spiritual power
the five spiritual abilities
the five spiritual powers
the seven factors of awakening
the Noble Eightfold Path
(the above list comprises the 37 Aids to Awakening).
Suppose, meditators there was a hen with eight, ten or twelve eggs that she had not covered, incubated and nurtured properly. Even though, such a wish as this might arise in her: 'Oh, that my chicks might pierce their shells with the points of their claws and beaks and hatch safely!' yet the chicks are incapable... For what reason? Because that hen with eight, ten or twelve eggs had not covered, incubated and nurtured them properly.
So too, meditators, when a meditator does not dwell devoted to development, even thought such a wish as this might arise in him: 'Oh, that my mind might be liberated from the taints by non clinging!' yet his mind is not liberated from the taints by non clinging. For what reason? It should be said: because of non development. Because of not developing what? Because of not developing the 37 Aids to Awakening. SN 22:101 (9) (abbreviated)
So the first thing we learn from this sutta is that it's important to notice the impermanence of everything and that it will take some effort, on our part, to Awaken, to come to the end of suffering. We can't just wish for it. Secondly, the Buddha directs us to the 37 Aids to Awakening for detailed instructions on where to make our effort.
That may seem like an overwhelming task. So let's simplify it. My spiritual friend,
Bodhipala, says the most simplified version of the Buddha's teaching is:
Don't do the bad
Do the good
Train the mind
So the first thing we look at is our moral behaviour. Most of us aren't physically harming others or stealing. If we are and we can't control our behaviour, some kind of professional help is urgently needed.
Where most of us struggle is with more passive aggressive behaviours or not following through on responsibilities or using unskillful speech. These actions emotionally wound others. If the other is spiritually advanced, they won't take our speech or behaviour personally and thus won't be wounded. We will just be unpleasant people to be around!
And not doing bad refers to ourself as well as to others. Are we harming ourself, perhaps with a poor diet, lack of physical activity (or too much!), inadequate rest, inadequate personal time?
So step one is to clean up our speech and behaviour. Once we have stopped harming, then step two is to do some good, to be generous. Generosity can take many forms. We can be a listening ear, help someone with chores, help someone out financially and so on.
Morality and generosity are the underpinnings of a spiritual life. All the meditation practices are built on this foundation of morality and generosity.
Now, if we go back and look at the Buddha's list of things to develop, we see the Four Right Efforts. And guess what! We are doing these efforts when we "don't do the bad, do the good". The first effort is to stop doing bad things as soon as we are aware they are happening and the second effort is to prevent doing bad things before they start. The third effort is to do good things and the fourth effort is to maintain this good behaviour once we are doing it. So the right efforts are step one! (Note: for more information, please read the linked article on the efforts. The efforts start with gross behaviour [eg. yelling and hitting], then gross mind states [eg. anger, agitation] and then subtle mind states [eg. lack of contentment].)
Making these efforts settles our mind enough that we can do step three: train the mind i.e. start the practice of meditation. This accords with the next item on the Buddha's list to develop: the Four Applications of Mindfulness. We arrange for some quiet space in our life where we won't be disturbed by phones or people or noises for a period of time. It's most beneficially if we do this daily. During this time we follow mindfulness meditation instructions on a meditation topic of our choice. These topics fall into four categories of where we can apply our mindfulness. These categories are:
1. the body (meditation on the breath, the 31 parts of the body, the four elements)
2. feeling tone (pleasant, unpleasant, neutral)
3. states of mind (wanting, anger, joy, peace etc)
4. removing the hindrances, developing the Factors of Awakening (Instructions for these meditations are given in the Teachings and in various articles on our website).
Next on the Buddha's list is developing the Four Foundations for spiritual power to Awaken. These foundations are:
enthusiasm - listen to Bhikkhu Thanissaro's talk on this under Oct 2019 # 29 Consistently on the Path
read some of the Testimonials or Sanghamitta's Journey on our website of the benefits some fellow meditators have experienced.
chat with fellow meditators before or after group to find out how their meditation practice has helped them
listen to inspiring Dhamma talks
energy - this arises on its own as we develop stillness in our meditation practice
mental development - this refers to letting go of the hindrances and developing the factors of Awakening.
investigation - investigating the present moment gives us the information needed to use wisdom power to let go of our remaining, subtle hindrances and to develop the factors of Awakening.
Here is a link to a lovely talk by Ayya Vyama on the foundations for spiritual power.
This brings us to the Five Spiritual Abilities. Once we have these abilities, we are in control of our mind, instead of our habit energies leading us around by the nose! These abilities are:
Confirmed faith or confirmed confidence (saddha) - we know for ourself that the teachings of the Buddha do lead to the end of suffering
Wisdom (pañña) - we know that everything that arises, passes away. Notice that this is the first thing the Buddha says about ending suffering in his opening quote of this article.
The Five Spiritual Powers, next in the list, are just a stronger version of the abilities.
Next on the Buddha's list to develop are the Seven Factors of Awakening. These are:
Investigation of what is wholesome vs. unwholesome, blameworthy vs. not blameworthy, dark vs. light, what hinders us in our practice and what aids us.
Factors one and two are like peddling uphill. They require effort. Factors three to seven are like coasting downhill. They arise naturally from the efforts to develop the first two factors.
Finally we come to the Noble Eightfold Path. This Path is the Buddha's teaching on how to come to the end of suffering. The 37 Aids to Awakening are just an elaboration of the Noble Eightfold Path. The steps on the Path are:
Right View - the view that suffering exists and is caused by wanting (desire)
Right Motivation - being motivated by loving friendliness, harmlessness and letting go of wanting
Right Speech - refraining from lying, malicious gossip, harsh speech and useless chatter
Right Action - refraining from destruction of life, from taking what is not given and from sexual misconduct
Right Livelihood - earning a living in a way that doesn't harm others or oneself
Right Mindfulness - being mindful of the present moment, remembering what we have chosen to focus on and knowing what is skillful and what is unskillful as a focus of mindfulness
Right Samadhi (stillness) - this is a result of our meditation practice. Once we are still we can see clearly.....see our subtle hindrances so we can let go of them and see the Path clearly.
To quote the Buddha:
"When these things are developed and cultivated, they lead to a pleasant dwelling in this very life and to mindfulness and clear comprehension." SN 22: 122 (10)
"....(one) is peaceful" SN 22:125 (13)
"(one is) freed from sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure and despair; freed from suffering, I say." SN 22:146 (11)
May you realize the fruits of the Path in this very life.
(In This Very Life is a book in CTBC's library by U Pandita, Ayya Medhanandi's second teacher.)