Will be giving a talk on the Seven Factors of Awakening for Buddhist Insights channel
Today we move on to the second of the four attitudes. We have already been exhorted and encouraged to live like the mountains are closing in. Now we are exhorted to practice like our head is on fire.
This is usually seen in relation to having a realization that you have unskillful or evil habits, mind-states, actions, etc. We find one of the prime examples of this in the “Mindfulness of Death (2nd)” , (an 8.74) Sutta:
The Buddha gives us a practice of reflecting that we may die in the hours to come, including reflecting on various ways we may die. Then comes the reflection :
And if I died from that it would be an obstacle to my progress.’ That mendicant should reflect: ‘Are there any bad, unskillful qualities that I haven’t given up, which might be an obstacle to my progress if I die tonight?’
This is again, like the previous attitude, a reflection and contemplation that brings up a sense of urgency in relation to the fact that you can die at any moment, a reflection that the mountains are closing in. An accounting of your progress and what work is left to be done.
Suppose that, upon checking, a mendicant knows that there are such bad, unskillful qualities. Then in order to give them up they should apply intense enthusiasm, effort, zeal, vigor, perseverance, mindfulness, and situational awareness.
Suppose your clothes or head were on fire. In order to extinguish it, you’d apply intense enthusiasm, effort, zeal, vigor, perseverance, mindfulness, and situational awareness. In the same way, in order to give up those bad, unskillful qualities, that mendicant should apply intense enthusiasm …
The Imagery is quite stark. I’m sure through videos of movies we have images of people on fire, running around, trying to put out the fire ASAP, to stop the extreme pain and possibility of death. Buddha is exhorting us to act in just such a way in our daily lives.
Zeal is a word that sticks out to me as the core requisite for the other qualities listed. Lets go to the dictionary :
Zeal – Enthusiastic devotion to a cause, ideal, or goal
It can be hard to practice like your head is on fire. It is easy to lose that mindfulness and zeal in the day to day business of life, even as a monastic. This is why we continually remind ourselves of the mountains, reflecting on the realities of life. Continually developing the Noble Eightfold Path, devoting ourselves to that goal.
At the end of the day it takes true insight into the nature of reality to be the fuel for that zeal. It generates naturally from the wisdom gained through the practice. Through continual reflection and meditation. It becomes a feedback loop where zeal maintains the practice and further insight fuels the zeal.
When we have zeal in abundance then the other qualities; effort, perseverance and vigor become easy to generate and the harder experiences easier to endure.
Besides the mountains closing in, there is another aspect to discuss that the Buddha used to bring up a sense of urgency and zeal. This is directly connected with kamma and rebirth and is summarized as “it would of been better had you died horribly now in this life then to do what you did because it will of created much greater suffering in future lives”
Going back up to the Mindfulness of death simile, we reflect that we still have unskillful habits and mind-states, and if we do not work on abandoning them, these habits and mind-states will be a strong influence on future bad behavior, which will lead to future suffering and bad destinations. The Buddha in this statement shows how even grievous physical pain and death can be less suffering then future results of bad actions.
Knowing this, and knowing that the causes and conditions for future suffering are still present ( our unskillful habits, tendencies, and mind-states), we should practice like our head is on fire, like there is no time to waste in this life. We should practice in such a way that minimizes and cuts short our suffering, not increases it. Until we are awakened we will suffer, so all we can do is put as much zeal , energy, and effort into the practice working towards that goal.
This is what it means to practice like your head is on fire. To be clear this does not mean you practice with no rest or consideration for mind and body, even the Buddha had to take care of his body and rest. The balance seen in Sona Sutta is important, but you should live with the practice very close, merging life and practice until you become an Avatar, a personification, of it.
The Buddha tells us to not be lazy, not to waste time, because time is not something we have in abundance, even though it may seem so as we get lost in the day to day of life. How many of us know the feeling of waking up one day and you feel the weight of 20 or more years passed and wonder where it went? Better to practice like our head is on fire, to end our suffering and attain peace.
I’ll end with this verse from sn 4.9 a conversation between Mara and Buddha:
Then Mara the Evil One approached the Blessed One and addressed him in verse:
“Long is the life span of human beings,
The good man should not disdain it.
One should live like a milk-sucking baby:
Death has not made its arrival.”
The Blessed One:
“Short is the life span of human beings,
The good man should disdain it.
One should live like one with head aflame:
There is no avoiding Death’s arrival.”
Then Mara the Evil One … disappeared right there.
I will be in Colorado November 1-14th. On Saturday November 11th from 1-3pm, I will be doing an event at the Ross-Barnum Branch of the Denver Library, Community Room #1. You are all welcome to attend and please spread the word to any friends or local meditators who would like to meditate and meet a monastic/ask them questions.
Tonight and next Wednesday I’ll be covering the regular sessions on Buddhist Insights. Here is the link for tonight –
Sutta 101 retreat starts next Friday. Join me for a weekend of learning about the Suttas, what they are, how to read and understand them, how to use them for study and practice, etc.
The first of the four attitudes comes from a sutta called Pabbatopama Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 3.25 which you can find at the following link :
The Sutta begins with the Buddha speaking with supporter and practitioner King Pasenadi of Kosala. The Buddha asks the king where he is coming from and they have a little chit chat, then the Buddha poses this question :
“What do you think, great king? Suppose a trustworthy and reliable man were to come from the east. He’d approach you and say:‘ Please sir, you should know this. I come from the east. There I saw a huge mountain that reached the clouds. And it was coming this way, crushing all creatures. So then, great king, do what you must!’ Then a second trustworthy and reliable man were to come from the west …a third from the north …and a fourth from the south. He’d approach you and say: ‘Please sir, you should know this. I come from the south. There I saw a huge mountain that reached the clouds. And it was coming this way, crushing all creatures. So then, great king, do what you must!’
Should such a dire threat arise—a terrible loss of human life, when human birth is so rare—what would you do?”
The king responds :
“Sir, what could I do but practice the teachings, practice morality, doing skillful and good actions?”
This, right here, is living like the mountains are closing in. This is our attitude to develop. Now the Buddha drops the hammer :
“I tell you, great king, I announce to you: old age and death are advancing upon you. Since old age and death are advancing upon you, what would you do?”
And so the king repeats :
“Sir, what can I do but practice the teachings, practice morality, doing skillful and good actions?
Old age, Sickness, and Death are advancing on us, like mountains closing in from all sides, unstoppable, inescapable. This is a realization most people avoid having until they themselves are old or close to death. The answer by the king to the question shows that he is a wise practitioner of Dhamma.
What do normally we do when mountains are closing in…panic? become a hedonist? find religion? We often notice the incoming mountains all too late. A dedicated and sincere Dhamma practitioner understands this line of the King. This is what it means to live like the mountains are closing in.
lets take a closer look at the pali words that make of the King’s response, and our attitude for today:
- dhammacariyāya -conduct in line with the Dhamma; ethical conduct; moral behaviour
- samacariyāya – living in spiritual calm ; wholesome conduct; harmonious behaviour; good behaviour
- kusalakiriyāya – performance of skillful actions
- puññakiriyāyā – performance of meritorious deeds
a closer look at the parts of the words:
cariyaya – conduct, behavior, state of life
kiriyāya – doing, performing
sama – calm, tranquil
kusala – skillful, wholesome
puñña – meritorious action
So we have words here that appear synonymous and all cover essentially the same basis in action and way of life. The first one I think covers all the rest “dhammacariyāya – Conduct in Line with the Dhamma”. We will actually see that this is a throughline across all four of the attitudes. It is something you see across many suttas as well, here is one example :
“Of two people who practice the Dhamma in line with the Dhamma, having a sense of Dhamma, having a sense of meaning — one who practices for both his own benefit and that of others, and one who practices for his own benefit but not that of others — the one who practices for his own benefit but not that of others is to be criticized for that reason, the one who practices for both his own benefit and that of others is, for that reason, to be praised.”
— AN 7.64
If you are honestly and sincerely living the Noble Eightfold Path, doing your best to live and act in line with the teachings, then you are practicing the Dhamma in line with the Dhamma.
samacariyāya – living in spiritual calm ; wholesome conduct; harmonious behaviour; good behaviour
someone unfamiliar with the teachings may question why spiritual calm and virtuous behavior come together in one word here. The Buddha tells us how the development of sila : moral or virtuous behavior, leads to a mind filled with much less restlessness and remorse. This is why sila is seen as a prerequisite for practicing for deep states of meditation.
When one performs kusalakiriyāya and puññakiriyāyā , skillful and meritorious actions, it uplifts the mind, gives it a joy and contentment. It is a mind like this that can do well in meditation, that acts as a basis for spiritual calm. With that calm one can face the mountains closing in with clarity and mindfulness.
The Divine Messengers and Mindfulness of Death Practices
The final aspect to cover with regards to the Mountains closing in, is that of the Divine Messengers of Old Age, Sickness, and Death. We can see them discussed in a very important sutta of the same name Anguttara Nikaya 3.36 – Divine Messengers
In this Sutta the Buddha explains how a person who does bad deeds goes to the hell realm and ends up in front of King Yama who questions him. The person is asked if they saw the Divine messengers, and they say they did not. The idea here being that averting our eyes and intentionally ignoring the divine messengers, those mountains coming in crushing all in their wake, is the cause for people doing the opposite of what the King proclaims in the only thing to do.
Instead of living and acting in line with the Dhamma, they live and act in line with Mara, the king of death, and commit unskillful or evil acts of kamma that will spawn bitter fruit in the future.
So the message is clear here, do not avoid old age, sickness, and death. Do not intentionally avert your eyes, put your head in the sand, and live unmindful to the realities of existence. Every day when you look to the horizon, see that the mountains are closing in, and act accordingly.
Live like the mountains are closing in.
The Buddha exhorts us to continually reflect on five things, no matter who we are. In this sutta –
We are subject to old age, sickness, and death. We will become separated from everyone and everything we hold dear, and we are the owners of our actions. One who reflects on these facts daily will keep in sight the mountains closing in, and will not waste time and act unskillfully.
And once you’ve reflected on these five long enough to become comfortable doing so, maybe you can add mindfulness of death practices that will allow you to see and act with even more clarity and tranquility. You can find my five part series here :
to close I’ll place the set of verses the Buddha states at the end of the Pabbatopama sutta :
“Suppose there were vast mountains
of solid rock touching the sky
drawing in from all sides
and crushing the four quarters.
So too old age and death
advance upon all living creatures—aristocrats, brahmins, peasants,
menials, outcastes, and scavengers.
They spare nothing.
They crush all beneath them.
There’s nowhere for elephants to take a stand,
nor chariots nor infantry.
They can’t be defeated
by diplomatic battles or by wealth.
That’s why an astute person,
seeing what’s good for themselves,
being wise, would place faith
in the Buddha, the teaching, and the Saṅgha.
Whoever lives by the teaching
in body, speech, and mind,
is praised in this life
and departs to rejoice in heaven.”
Next Retreat starting November 29th, is Sutta 101 class in a way. It was created to help people get into and understand the suttas in their various aspects, such as cultural context, how to handle the repetition etc.
Metta Retreat this upcoming weekend. Join us on Zoom for a weekend of learning about and practicing metta in accordance with the suttas.
I have not written a series in some years, since before the nomad life, but I wanted to get back into it by outlining what I call the “Maggasekha Way”. I’m still developing the various deeper connections and intricacies of this concept, but what will follow in this series is the basic framework and understanding. After this introduction will come four parts, each focusing on one of the for attitudes.
Every day a few years back on the Maggasekha Discord, I got into the habit of posting 4 emojis, like so :
The Development of these specific concepts into a package arose unconsciously, organically over time as I wrote my morning greetings to the community. Someone who is well versed in the suttas may already have connected the four images to various suttas, because indeed these are not something I made up like some self-help guru, but they are truly, as I have named the title of the article, attitudes the Buddha gives us for how to properly live the path.
I have chosen the word attitude with care here, lets look at the definition :
manner, disposition, feeling, position, etc., with regard to a person or thing; tendency or orientation, especially of the mind
This last part of the definition is most important for our purposes – an orientation of the mind. These four attitudes orient and guide the Maggasekha (Student of the Path) along the Noble Eightfold Path, keep that person in the right direction, equipped with the appropriate mental attitudes to thrive and develop on it.
The four that I will detail in this series of articles are not the totality of such attitudes, there are more, but these four are prominent and work together as a cohesive whole quite well.
So briefly, what are the four?
Live like the mountains are closing in
Practice like your head is on fire
Raise high the banner of seers
Roar your lions roar
Each one of these has one or more suttas that discuss the concept and attitude and it’s importance to the path. in the following four articles I will do my best to elucidate the meaning and purpose of these similes and their respective suttas and their importance on the path. See you soon with the first installment.