Probably everyone who comes across Buddha’s teachings wonders where and how to begin practicing the Dhamma. We read various books by Ajahns, Sayadaws, and other teachers, attend meditation retreats, visit monasteries or centers, engage in various meditation techniques, mantras, and ceremonies, yet we are still not sure about what we should really be doing. I doubt that my further thoughts can clarify these doubts, but I hope that despite the complexity of this topic, they will touch on the essence of Dhamma practice to some extent. How to realize these things in our own experience will depend solely on how much effort we are willing to put into study and insight.
Each of us probably has their own reason for following the Buddha’s teachings, but the Buddha’s main aim was how to transform from a ‘meaningless’ or ‘ignorant’ human being into a ‘meaningful’ or ‘wise’ one, i.e., how to realize the truth about the world and the self. The first fact is that we are all deeply immersed in our views. Moreover, views are us; they are part of our essence. Without views, we are nothing. It is understandable then that we are protective of all these views and that we connect with an environment where our views are accepted and safe. This attachment to views is so powerful that in certain situations, we may even be willing to sacrifice our lives. Isn’t that why then we have conflicts or even wars? Do we ever think or doubt whether ‘my’ views are indeed correct? If we consider how much disagreement exists in the world, and that everyone sees and thinks differently, why should we take ‘my’ views so seriously? Despite this doubt being perhaps reasonable, we will still lead our lives according to our views, stubbornly asserting that I am the one who has the right view of the situation, and in the end, we will die as saints of an idealistic life. Why? Because our essence and existence depend on views. And this is the root of all attachments.
The Buddha taught us that views are always wrong, no matter how sacred they may sound. The Pali word for views is usually ‘diṭṭhi.’ Modern translators of suttas usually translate diṭṭhi as ‘wrong views,’ but the Pali language in the suttas simply says ‘views.’ So, whatever views we have about world events, family situations, life, faith, ourselves, etc., these views are just views, and in the eyes of the noble ones, they are therefore wrong views. They are wrong because we do not understand the nature of views.
The Buddha also taught about right view (sammā diṭṭhi). However, this does not mean that the Buddha picked out the right one from a collection of different views. Any view we pull out – as we already know – will always be wrong. So, the right view is not something we can choose, extract from a pile of diverse views, and then claim as our own. Whichever views we create will always remain a ‘creation’ and therefore not fundamental truth. But then, how can we know the truth and develop right view when everything we believe in misses the essence? The Buddha is the one who discovered a special fundamental formula, explained it, and guided his disciples to this understanding. The formula goes:”
Dve’me bhikkhave paccayā micchādiṭṭhiyā uppādāya.
Katame dve? Parato ca ghoso ayoniso ca manasikāro.
Ime kho bhikkhave dve paccayā micchādiṭṭhiyā uppādāyā ti.
“Here, monks, there are two conditions for the arising of wrong view. Which two? The word of another and inappropriate attention. Monks, these two are conditions for the arising of wrong view.
Dve’me bhikkhave paccayā sammādiṭṭhiyā uppādāya.
Katame dve? Parato ca ghoso yoniso ca manasikāro.
Ime kho bhikkhave dve paccayā sammādiṭṭhiyā uppādāyā ti.
Here, monks, there are two conditions for the arising of right view. Which two? The word of another and appropriate attention. Monks, these two are conditions for the arising of right view.”
So, if I summarize this in abbreviations: ‘word of another’ (WoA), ‘mind’s orientation’ (Mo), and ‘view’ (V). We have WoA + MoX = VX for the first sutta and WoA + Mo√ = V√ for the second sutta. For the arising of both VX and V√, we have the same condition, i.e., WoA. This means that what we hear and intellectually understand, even though the teaching is correctly given by a noble person (who has V√), doesn’t necessarily mean that this correct view will easily adapt to our view. Since our mind is still ignorant (VX), every WoA (no matter how sacred √ is) that passes through the filter MoX will transform into VX. Isn’t it so? Just look at how many Buddhist traditions, sub-traditions, and sub-sub-traditions exist today; and how many different methods and ideas are available; and how many contradictions exist in our views! In the world, we don’t have just one truth, but billions of ‘noble truths.’ “These (wrong) views have arisen due to their inappropriate orientation of the mind or due to (the influence of) listening to another person.” (AN 10:93) All these views, whether good or bad, will, therefore, not be liberated from conditioning and will remain at the level of worldliness, part of the world of the ignorant.
But let’s go back to the formula and further analyze WoA or the ‘word of another.’ The Buddha said that the main factors for the development of wisdom are associating with good people and listening to good Dhamma or teachings. (AN 4:248) Conversely, the opposite is a lack of faith or confidence and a predisposition of the mind to criticize. (AN 10:76) However, because we identify with the ignorant mind, no matter how hard we try to distance ourselves from ignorance (e.g., with awareness of awareness of the object…, or by being ‘just an observer,’ or with mystical visualization of the divine), we will always carry ignorance (avijjā) with us. Therefore, we need someone or something that can provide an external perspective on our situation, showing us what the truth is. For example, to see our own face, we depend on another person who describes our face to us or on an object like a mirror that reflects our image. Similarly, in the Dhamma, we have the Buddha and other noble beings who can explain to us the basis of our personal existence, and the suttas where all these guidelines are recorded. Only the Buddha and noble beings can be kalyāṇamittā, good friends.
The second important factor for attaining right view is the correct orientation of the mind (Mo√). The Pali word for this is “yoniso manasikāra.” “Yoniso” is a very interesting word that carries significant meaning. “Yoni” literally means ‘womb.’ The womb is the organ where all ‘conceived’ or formed things (saṅkhāra) lead to the birth of our essence, our experience, and understanding of the world: we are born into the world. “Yoniso” is the source of everything. “Yoniso manasikāra” can be best translated as ‘directing the thought to the roots or source of general experience.’ This means going back to the roots of the structure that allows us to see, hear, recognize things, and have views. Since looking at the roots or source is the right way to view, we usually simplify this as ‘correct orientation of the mind.’
We need to understand and develop “yoniso manasikāra.” It has been said that we cannot attain the state of enlightenment and liberation from hindrances unless we abandon wrong orientations of the mind, following wrong paths, and a slow mentality. (AN 10:76) And how do we develop such a clear view of the mind and its phenomena? In the same sutta, it is said that we can achieve this by relinquishing confused favoring, weak awareness, and the distracted mind, which arise and thrive due to our reluctance to meet holy beings, unwillingness to listen to noble Dhamma, and due to criticism. The suttas are full of warnings about the danger of such heedless, negligent, and inattentive mind.
Due to the wrong orientation of the mind,
Master, thoughts gnaw at you.
By renouncing wrong paths,
Reflect carefully. (SN 9:11)
What leads to confusion? Wrong orientation of the mind. (DN 34)
When the mind is wrongly oriented, sensory desires, existence, and ignorance that were not there before come to the surface. And when they are present, they grow. (MN 2)
Monks, I do not see even one thing that causes harm… the disappearance of the Dhamma… ignorance, like the wrong orientation of the mind. (AN 1:90,122,310)
Indeed, the Buddha encourages us to develop the right orientation:
“Formerly, my thoughts wandered where they liked,
following desires and pleasures —
now I shall fully control them with wisdom,
as a mahout controls an elephant in musth.” (Dhp 326)
What is the foundation for the development of mindfulness, as a factor of enlightenment? Frequently offering the appropriate orientation of the mind towards phenomena. (SN 46:2ii)
When a monk is consummate in the right orientation of the mind, it can be expected that they will develop and nurture the Noble Eightfold Path. (SN 45:62)
Up to this point, we’ve presented the formula Bd+Um√=P√ and explained it with lessons from the ‘textbook.’ However, some may still wonder how to incorporate this formula into our everyday lives here and now. To make it a bit clearer, I’ll provide some additional practical advice with examples.
Our natural inclination is to be sensorially engaged in the world. The mind is constantly occupied and doesn’t get a break. The world demands productivity and our participation in it. All we need to perfect is that world out there: we build it, fix it, negate it, renew it, love it, hate it, defend it, care for it… Even our ‘rests’ are occupied with sensory experiences. To avoid busyness, we know how to negate an unpleasant object by replacing it with a pleasant one: if we don’t like salty, we go for sweet; if not left, then right. But all we’re doing is choosing a desirable sensory object from a very limited collection. Whether we go left or right, we’re still on the mundane path. Choosing is the only way we know how to act, and we don’t know any other way out of this. The Buddha taught that the way out of the horizontal view is possible and explained how to develop the vertical view.
The first thing he emphasized is that we must not follow negative and unwholesome physical, verbal, and mental tendencies. Thus, the Buddha established rules for monks (pāṭimokkha) and gave five precepts for laypeople (not to kill, not to steal, not to engage in improper sexual conduct, not to lie, and not to consume intoxicants and drugs leading to heedlessness). In addition, he taught that we should restrain sensory desires, i.e., take a step back from sensuality, from the world. He encouraged us to live life as mindfully and attentively as possible.
When we are immersed in the everyday world, we are not mindful of what is happening in our minds or hearts. This becomes apparent when we notice that we are not only capable of deceiving other people but are even willing to accept lies as truth. With a blurred and deluded mind, we follow our views and interpret various situations lightly as it suits us. For example, we start criticizing a colleague because she didn’t greet us with enough kindness in the morning. We can take this situation so seriously that we start recalling other unpleasant memories of that person. We carry these thoughts with us and interpret them… this can completely ruin our day! Or when we come home in a bad mood, even the smallest thing can throw us off balance. Finding examples of getting lost in negativity is not difficult. Or, for example, we might crave ice cream even though our health does not allow it, and our mind will surely find ‘justified’ reasons, saying that nature or some supernatural force demands that we follow our desires, and we have no choice.
What do these examples have in common? In all cases, we think the problem is out there in the world, that other people are to blame, or it was the will of ‘god.’ However, that doesn’t mean the problem is now in us, i.e., that we need to be self-critical. Both judgments, towards others and towards ourselves, are ‘out there in the world’—whether we are pointing our finger at someone else or at ourselves, the index finger is still pointing somewhere outward. So, neither excuses nor self-punishment solve the fundamental problem of suffering. But how to realize the fundamental problem if it is not out there, nor in me? First, we begin (as mentioned above in sutta AN 10:76) by listening to the Dhamma and avoiding the tendency to criticize. We will let go of confused favoring and the distraction of the mind and develop mindfulness. This means that instead of empty interpretations of the situation, we step back and acknowledge where the problem lies. And when the mind is more attentive, it will become clearer that the problem is not that person or situation, but it is resistance to an unpleasant feeling. Feelings can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, but since we identify with pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings are always unwelcome. We have resistance to them and do not want to accept them—so we prefer to push them somewhere else, elsewhere, to someone else, to god… The problem is not in the nature itself that we cannot resist sensory objects, such as ice cream. The problem is the craving for sensory pleasures and for existence. Try this in practice. When you notice your mind chattering about this and that issue and then strengthen your mindfulness, what happens? You might feel relieved that you don’t have to believe your own interpretations, but you may also feel the inner pain for which you take responsibility. When we are so authentic with ourselves that we notice where it festers, we will approach the problem differently.
What is essential in practice is self-discovery. We must develop self-transparency. We need to see what is right in front of our noses, what is truly appearing to us. We must refrain from interpretations and from following ‘my’ view. What directly (phenomenologically) appears comes before what we emotionally and intellectually understand. This means we go back to the roots of general experience itself to develop this Mo√. Therefore, it is said that we must beware of the danger of sensuality and instead continuously develop mindfulness. With the right development, new aspects of the general experience will emerge over time, which have always been present but not noticed by us. We will begin to notice that this general nature of experience functions only because it is brilliantly structured. And not only that, we will begin to understand the entire mechanism of the mind. Then, the Buddha’s teachings become increasingly clear and touch the deepest personal corner… even more: this understanding reveals that the identification with this ‘mechanical structure’ is meaningless and an unnecessary parasite in general experience. This understanding brings unconditioned happiness and peace, enlightenment. WoA + Mo√ = V√.
And if someone still doubts what they should really do in Dhamma practice, let’s first consider whether it makes sense to try to figure out which meditation technique to use. Is it really important how to hold mudras, what to recite, how to ring bells, how to bow, how to sit, and how long to meditate? All these personal inclinations have their time, place, and likely benefit: they can help develop devotion and piety and can also be used as an external form of expressing gratitude and as a means of connecting people in groups that form an entity that presents itself to the outside world and thus spreads the Buddha’s teachings. However, these practices are not necessary to achieve the right view, as we now know that there is unity behind the diversity of views in the Dhamma world. There is no need to do something for the sake of feeling like we’re doing something. For Awakening, it’s better not to do anything and instead focus on the Dhamma and develop appropriate directions of the mind – this is enough to achieve the right view and insight into Nibbāna.
If someone has the aspiration to lead a holy life but lacks the appropriate direction of the mind, it is not possible for them to produce any fruits… But even if they have no aspirations and lead a holy life with the appropriate direction of the mind, they will always produce fruits. (MN 126)
Manasikāra can also be translated as attention, but the issue in Slovenian is that the word sati is also translated with the same word (while in English, we can distinguish ‘attention’ for manasikāra and ‘mindfulness’ for sati). Manasikāra is formed from the ablative of the word mana, which means ‘from thought’ or ‘from the mind,’ and kāra means action, manner, production, or direction. Sati means the collectedness of thought, remembrance, and being non-dispersed, but manasikāra is insight into the structure of experience itself. The meaning is certainly different, and it is important to make this distinction clear, so I translate manasikāra as ‘direction of the mind.’