Sangha and Mindfulness of Breathing
This is the first of several essays I want to produce as we study the Anapanasati Sutta, the discourse on the development of mindfulness through breath awareness. This teaching is the only one I’m aware of in the Pali Canon that has a fairly well developed “prelude” extolling the virtues and dedication of the sangha present as the Buddha talked about the cultivation of the four foundations of mindfulness and the seven awakening factors using breath awareness as the primary strategy.
This essay focuses on possible reasons for emphasizing the high quality of practice among the assembled men and women listening to the talk (I’m assuming women were present although this is not explicitly stated in the sutta).
The discourse begins by describing the site, Savatthi, the town where the Buddha lived during most of his years of teaching. At the beginning, he names several of his most senior monks who were teaching many students there at the time. He’s so impressed by their diligent practice that he announces he will remain there for another month.
Here an excerpt, downloaded from the website Access To Insight; the translation is that of Thanissaro Bhikkhu:
“Monks, I am content with this practice. I am content at heart with this practice. So arouse even more intense persistence for the attaining of the as-yet-unattained, the reaching of the as-yet-unreached, the realization of the as-yet-unrealized. I will remain right here at Savatthi [for another month] through the ‘White Water-lily’ Month, the fourth month of the rains.”
The monks in the countryside heard, “The Blessed One, they say, will remain right there at Savatthi through the White Water-lily Month, the fourth month of the rains.” So they left for Savatthi to see the Blessed One.
Then the elder monks taught & instructed the new monks even more intensely. Some elder monks were teaching & instructing ten monks, some were teaching & instructing twenty monks, some were teaching & instructing thirty monks, some were teaching & instructing forty monks. The new monks, being taught & instructed by the elder monks, were discerning grand, successive distinctions.
Now on that occasion — the Uposatha day of the fifteenth, the full-moon night of the White Water-lily Month, the fourth month of the rains — the Blessed One was seated in the open air surrounded by the community of monks. Surveying the silent community of monks, he addressed them:
“Monks, this assembly is free from idle chatter, devoid of idle chatter, and is established on pure heartwood: such is this community of monks, such is this assembly. The sort of assembly that is worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect, an incomparable field of merit for the world: such is this community of monks, such is this assembly. The sort of assembly to which a small gift, when given, becomes great, and a great gift greater: such is this community of monks, such is this assembly. The sort of assembly that it is rare to see in the world: such is this community of monks, such is this assembly — the sort of assembly that it would be worth traveling for leagues, taking along provisions, in order to see.
Having described the worthiness of the assembly, he then describes what he will talk about:
“In this community of monks there are monks who remain devoted to mindfulness of in-&-out breathing.
“Mindfulness of in-&-out breathing, when developed & pursued, is of great fruit, of great benefit. Mindfulness of in-&-out breathing, when developed & pursued, brings the four frames of reference to their culmination. The four frames of reference, when developed & pursued, bring the seven factors for awakening to their culmination. The seven factors for awakening, when developed & pursued, bring clear knowing & release to their culmination.
Over the last few years of my practice it has become clear to me that the intention of Buddhist training is to develop the seven awakening factors; when they are fully realized, the practitioner has an experience of the unconditioned, Nibbana (Nirvana in Sanskrit).
This development will be the topic of the next series of dhamma dialogues, lasting at least until the 9 day residential retreat scheduled to begin March 13.
Now, why the emphasis on the diligence and virtue of the assembly in Savatthi? I can’t know specifically why this particular discourse was constructed in such a way—after all, if the Buddha lived there during most of his career, there were likely that many folks attending during other discourses also. The Buddha placed a high value on spiritual community:
As he was seated to one side, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: having admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues.”
“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Having admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.
“And how does a monk who has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, develop & pursue the noble eightfold path? There is the case where a monk develops right view dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in letting go. He develops right resolve… right speech… right action… right livelihood… right effort… right mindfulness… right concentration dependent on seclusion… dispassion… cessation, resulting in letting go. This is how a monk who has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, develops & pursues the noble eightfold path.
“And through this line of reasoning one may know how having admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues is actually the whole of the holy life: It’s in dependence on me as an admirable friend that beings subject to birth have gained release from birth, that beings subject to aging have gained release from aging, that beings subject to death have gained release from death, that beings subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair have gained release from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair.”— SN 45.2, Upaddha Sutta: Half (of the Holy Life), translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, downloaded from Access To Insight
This acknowledges a basic fact of human existence: primates are social creatures–we function more effectively in groups than in isolation. Important skills that set us apart from other primates are the capacities we have for abstract thinking/conceptualizing and for verbalizing. We learn how to use these qualities in each generation, that is, we interact with others, primarily family in the early stages of development, and then in the larger social setting.
For a long time, I’ve considered any process of spiritual development as evolutionary, that is, the development of ethical concepts combined with the practice of behaving ethically allows the human species to thrive. The development of Buddhism is one of the first historical examples of how a human cultural phenomenon can foster the actual application of ethical concepts through mindfulness training.
A modern cultural phenomenon that relates to the ability to realize ethical concepts is what social psychologist term “accountability partners”. These are groups of people who intentionally form social bonds with others to foster consistent action toward achieving a desirable goal. Social scientists have investigated how this operates in terms of overcoming eating disorders and other compulsive behaviors. The most obvious examples are the various “12 step” groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and other sorts of groups that foster the notion of regularly associating with each other in person or through media to overcome the addiction. In a more positive way, some business organizations are establishing peer support groups to develop goals and hold each other accountable for acting on their commitments to each other to realize them.
Of course, this has been part of the monastic world for centuries. Interestingly, some researchers suggest that the first really well-developed and sustained monastic “peer accountability system” is the Buddhist cultural phenomenon we call the Sangha!