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Evolution of Mindfulness 2.

Theravāda Buddhism and the way of purification

Nothing remains the same and this is also true of Buddhism. After the Buddha died his community, the Sangha, had to find their own way. While there were certainly principle monks, Kassapa and Sāriputta, the Buddha had made it very clear, each within the Sangha were to be a light unto themselves. However this did not mean that everyone went their own way and at several points – the ‘three councils’ – the Sangha got together to agree on what the Buddha had taught and remember this through collectively chanting each of the discourses. It was at the third of these councils, at about 250 BCE and known as the ‘Great Schism’, that a small group of monks split from the majority who would not agree to their desire for a stricter monastic discipline. From this group is derived what we now know as Theravāda Buddhism – the School of the Elders.

NB. This account is highly simplified – a more accurate account would include a mention that the accounts we have are partial, ambiguous and partisan. There is a confusion between the second and third council and also the possibility that different councils have become conflated. Finally the lineage of the Theravādins is not entirely clear.

Today Theravāda Buddhism is found throughout Sri Lanka and South East Asia. Out of the various expressions of Buddhism found in Asia and the Far East it is the closest to what the historical Buddha taught and its scriptures – the Pāli Canon – contains the entire body of the Buddha’s teaching (with the addition of later levels of strictly Theravādan material). Because of this, in terms of mindfulness, there is not a great difference from what we have seen in session one that looked at in the Satipaṭṭhāna and the Ānāpānasati Suttas. Furthermore, Theravādan’s remain in close accord with the sutta’s understanding of the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the three marks of existence, the five aggregates, dependent arising, karma and rebirth, the hinderances and factors of awakening, jhāna – levels of meditative absorption, insight, wisdom, kindness and compassion, and nibbāna. All ideas that we have met in last years study of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. There are however some interesting developments.

The Abhidhamma – listing how things really are

It is a central truth for Buddhism that what brings suffering to an end is knowing how things really are. Initially this referred to the ‘three factors of existence’ – impermanence, not-self and unsatisfactoriness. However – as we saw in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta – reality is more broadly made up of ‘dhammas’, psycho-physical events or processes that make up both the external world and our own senses, feelings and mind – it is these that are impermanent, not-self and unsatisfactory. Every dhamma is dependent for its existence on previous dhammas and future dhammas are dependent on what is happening now. Looked at as a whole they make an infinite net of interdependent connections that have existed since limitless time. They are the basic building bricks of reality, what we find when we deeply look using mindfulness.

I don’t know about you but when I first came across this idea I found it quite difficult. Just in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta it seemed that ‘dhamma’ covered a variety of seemingly quite different things. Sometimes it meant something quite simple – an experience of pleasure or displeasure, a reaction of wanting or not wanting, the distorted reception of sensory impressions. But then again it also covered incredibly complex sets of ideas such as the process of decomposition and the four noble truths. Further more, dhammas, are said to occur extremely fleetingly, many happening within each split moment, so to all intents and purposes we never actually experience a single dhamma but rather an endless cascade of dhammas as they rush in and out of existence. A cascade that gives the impression of continuous experience when actually it is a endless sequence of separate ‘bits’ each divided by an equally minute gap.

In an attempt to make sense of all this the communities of monks, around the 3rd. century BCE, began to sort out and codify what the Buddha had taught. This took some effort because the Buddha had often presented his teaching in ways to help understanding rather than be strictly ‘true’. This expression of the Buddha’s skilful means is described as his use of ‘provisional’ and ‘definitive’ truth. The result of this codification is found in the division of Buddhist scripture that is called the ‘Abhidhamma’ – Higher Teachings. It is basically a list of all the dhammas that exist and a theory of their interaction – but beware, if lists irritate you, this will drive you mad!

Let’s start with the whole thing in essence and then if we get glassy eyed we will have at least read the most important bit. The idea is that there are states of mind that lead away from awakening – like the five hindrances – and those that lead towards – like the seven awakening factors, mindfulness being central. And finally there is just one state of mind, nibbāna, enlightenment, which unlike all the others is neither created nor decays, that is outside of time and causation. A special state of mind that ends suffering. The path of purification then is to discourage unwholesome dhammas, cultivate wholesome ones and so finally arrive at nibbāna. All the details can be boiled down to just this.

So how many dhammas are there? Well surprising just eighty two presented in four groups. Together, in a variety of interactions, they make up all physical and mental events:

1. Citta (mind, consciousness) just 1.

2. Cetasika (mental factors, mental events), 52 types.

3. Rūpa (physical occurrences, material form), 28 types.

4. Nibbāna (cessation). This unconditioned dhamma that neither arises nor ceases due to causal interaction.

Normally we would not be aware of these divisions – experientially we just know (consciousness) what is happening within us (mental events) and what is happening around us (physical occurrences). As for Nibbāna (cessation) – well, we are still waiting.

If we simply take the mental factors we may begin to get a clearer idea. So there are just 52 mental events that combine in a multitude of shifting combinations, each giving birth to the next. We will see that some are ‘universals’ – they are always present. Some are ‘occasionals’ – not always present. And some are wholesome and some not. Watch out for the unwholesome universals! Here are the lists:

7 mental factors that arise in all moments of consciousness – universals.

Firstly these are four of the five aggregates (psycho-physical components of the person) –

1. contact with the sense object.

2. feeling tone of pleasant, unpleasant or neither.

3. perception leading to classification of the object based on previous experience.

4. volition – the response that creates karma.

and then also

5. one-pointedness – focusing on one object at a time.

6. mental vitality – sustaining and supporting the interdependence of the seven factors.

7. attention – directing the associated factors towards their object.

6 mental factors that arise in some moments of consciousness – occasionals.

1. applied thought – deliberately placing attention

2. sustained thought – holding the attention

3. decision – committed engagement

4. energy – holding it all together with interest

5. joy – uplifting enthusiasm that may occur

6. impulse to act – a desire not rooted in the three poisons

And 39 mental factions grouped into unwholesome and wholesome universals and occasionals:

4 unwholesome universals – always present during an unskilful act:

1. delusion – not seeing experience as it really is – impermanence, selflessness and unsatisfactoriness

2. restlessness – agitation that ruffles the mind

3. suspension of conscience – momentary loss that hinders skilful acts

4. suspension of respect – momentary loss of respect for the rights and opinions of others

10 unwholesome occasionals only sometimes present during an unskilful act:

1. greed

2. hatred

3. wrong view

4. conceit

5. envy

6. avarice

7. worry

8. sloth and

9. torpor

10. doubt

From the perspective of meditation practice there is little difference between universal and occasional unwholesome mental factors as they are all obstacles to mental serenity and clarity. They include the five hindrances to calm abiding and entering the absorptions (jhāna) and the hindrance of grasping after the realisation insight.

The practitioner abandons these unwholesome factors in a mindful manner, not adding to the first arrow of their occurrence with a second arrow of a further unwholesome mind factor. For instance, with anger or despair. This is to avoid pushing away and acting out, accepting or rejecting, by seeing what it is and gently releasing ones identification with it.

And the antidotes to all this unwholesomeness:

19 Wholesome universals – always present during a skilful act.

1. mindfulness

2. non-greed

3, non-hatred

4, equanimity

5, conscience

6. respect

7. confidence or faith

8. tranquility

9. lightness

10. malleability

11. weildiness – to be able to hold

12. proficiency

13. rectitude

(+ a further six that have somehow been lost!)

To be mindful is to exclude restlessness, delusion and all the other unwholesome mental factors because – it is believed – that only one mental factor can exist in any one micro moment. Mindfulness is more sustained then the mental states of basic attention, intention and one-pointedness. It also takes up a gear other factors that train the mind such as applying and sustaining attention on a consciously chosen object of awareness and generating energy or joy.

With mindfulness come the co-factors of non-greed and non-hatred – it is free of the poisons. It is also attended by equanimity – which is why mindfulness is associated with non-judgement of the object, accepting it as it is. Tranquility, lightness, malleability, weildiness, proficiency and rectitude are also qualities of mindfulness – they make up the ‘light touch’ of our practice.

6 wholesome occasionals – good but not always present.

1. right speech

2. right action

3. right livelihood

4. compassion

5. sympathetic joy

6. wisdom

1. to 3. appear to be behaviours but when considered moment to moment may or may not be present

4. and 5. are, with loving kindness and equanimity (universal wholesome’s), the four illimitable mind states – the brahma-vihāras.

6. Wisdom may or may not be present – it is not a given but depends on mindfulness and the other factors leading to the insight that reveals the impermanence, interdependence and impersonality of everything, as well as seeing the origins and cessation of suffering as it manifests moment to moment.

So there we have it, 52 mind states that help or hinder awakening. Simple.

I suspect you may find the lists a little boggling. I certainly did. But once we get the idea that mindfulness and clearly knowing together reveal what is happening in our minds, we also understand that what is happening is just combinations of what are listed here. Just thoughts and emotions, coming and going, some helpful, some not. It’s simply meeting who we are consciously.

A model of layered attention

Let’s look how this all works in the moment. As our senses receive sense stimuli these stimuli are all known within consciousness. (Oddly ‘consciousness’ here does not mean ‘consciously known’ – ie. in conscious awareness – but simply picked up, registered, some of it subliminally.) This information is then joined by a combination of mental factors from those described in the 39 mind states above. Depending upon which mind states arise so consciousness will be wholesome or not. This basic process can then move via practice from being totally unaware – discursive thought – to the pinnacle of clarity and insight – wisdom.

Discursive thought

As long as we are not dead, in a coma or deep sleep, the factors of the five aggregates are sufficient to perceive and know something, albeit fleetingly and beneath the level of conscious awareness. Daydreaming, multi-tasking on automatic pilot, randomly thinking, requires only these mental factors to be present so that it is possible to interpret and respond to the torrent of incoming stimuli. Though it may seem we choose what we focus on this is part of the illusion – associative pathways formed by habitual reactions pre-condition most of our experience. Actions, behaviours, emotions and thoughts, though occurring in ‘consciousness’, are paradoxically unconscious.

Beginning to concentrate

When the occasional mental factors of applied and sustained thought along with decision, energy, joy and the impulse to act are present, the mind begins to be able to settle briefly upon a deliberately chosen object. It still wanders off but this is the beginning of increased concentration that comes from applying and sustaining attention. This concentration can be used for wholesome or unwholesome ends, we can concentrate on a Buddha image or rubbish. It is also the experience and concern of the new meditator as they struggle to stay focused upon a single object of mindfulness or a whole succession of objects (eg. sensations coming and going).

Caught up in three poisons

This is being caught up in the arising and passing of both universal and occasional unwholesome mind states. If only the universal factors are present this will then be unconscious, (for they represent deep delusion), but if the occasional mental factors are also present then the unwholesomeness will be consciously known to us and perhaps intentionally furthered and enjoyed, (because they are just a whole load of nastiness that we may savour). Either way we are swept along by the force of the emotion, compelled to act out emotions destructive to ourselves and others.


Mindfulness builds upon the basic attention found in the universal factors (our psycho-physical existence) and which is lifted into awareness by the occasional factors, (the decision and ability to practice). To this it adds universal wholesome factors, (a combo of further skills and ethics), shaping the perception in characteristic ways – the attention becomes confident, kind, balanced and healthy. Mindfulness is wholesome attention. And this – because two dhammas cannot simultaneously exist in the same moment – excludes the poisons. As such to be mindful is to purify the poisons even if the object is simply the breath because it is the mindfulness that makes the difference, not the object. Keeping this up, moment after moment, mindfulness of unwholesome states, is transformative precisely because mindfulness blocks what is unwholesome and replaces it with itself which is the epitome of what is wholesome and skilful.


When the universal wholesome factors are joined by the occasional wholesome factors wisdom arises. (Basically when we practice). In this model this is not automatic – mindfulness and its blocking purification of unwholesome mental states can be present without wisdom also being present. For wisdom to arise mindfulness must ripen into insight which sees directly impermanence, selflessness and unsatisfactoriness in the arising and passing away of objects of awareness. Again what the object is is not that significant, knowing its nature is what is important. Wisdom also, like all factors is also impermanent and dependent on causes and conditions, as such it may arise and pass and so is only experienced in brief glimpses until it is fully established as ones meditative skills come to completion with awakening.

NB. Again this seems pretty complicated but in essence it is saying the same thing again. Our ordinary mind is largely unconscious and consumed with thoughts and emotions that are frequently unwholesome and unskilful. However, we do have the ability to ‘up grade’ our ordinary attention through cultivating a sustained concentration. The fruits of this are primarily the ability to chose between what is wholesome and what not, and on the back of this develop a calm and insightful mind that knows experientially the transitory and unsatisfactory nature of existence. From this greatest insight comes enlightenment.

Meditation as a Process

So what happens when we sit?

Changing the mind

This is simply encouraging the wandering mind to pay attention to one thing rather than another.

Training the mind

This is committing to cultivating extended attention to either one object or a series of changing objects. This develops concentration.

Purifying the mind

While doing this it is normal for many unwholesome states of mind to arise. Abandoning these once they are noticed and guarding against their further occurrence is the practice.

Transforming the mind

During those moments when the poisons are absent mindfulness and its accompanying mental factors will be present which blocks the arising of unwholesome states and strengthens wholesome states. (The stages of purification and mindfulness are effectively the same. It is mindfulness that is the agent of purification.)

Liberating the mind

Once mindfulness is more fully established conditions ripen that both strengthen the power of mindfulness which enables it to gain insight into the nature of experience. This insight is wisdom that functions momentarily or more long term as the unconscious habits of delusion are expunged from the mind and no longer arise.


This week, while the form of the practice of being mindful has not really changed, it is as if we have taken a microscope to what happens in our minds generally and also when we sit. What started out as simply ‘thinking’, then ‘automatic pilot’, and then ‘pig, chicken and snake’, from our mindfulness course, has here turned into something much more precise and detailed. However, it remains, essentially the same. We are still noticing what happens as we practice and naming the distractions ‘thinking’ – we just know more about what this thinking consists of.

There are also a few things that have an importance for our next set of evenings:

  • The mind in this Theravādan Abhidhamma model is neither pure nor impure. It is something that is coloured by our choices and actions.

  • This is different from a later Sanskrit, more Mahāyāna, Northern Abidharma that believes mindfulness and wisdom are universal mental factors. Although this knowledge may be hidden by unwholesome mental factors, nonetheless, mindfulness and wisdom are aspects of our basic nature. This idea then bridges over to the later Buddhist belief that the mind is fundamentally already awakened, inherently wise, our Buddha Nature, and we have but to uncover it from its occluding poisons. Thus the practice becomes uncovering rather than working at the minds purification – the uncovered Buddha Nature requires no purification.

  • Another – and profound implication – is the issue of non-duality, a really big deal in what will follow. Without going too far ahead, what is non-dual here is the insight that there is actually no subject in relationship to what is being experienced – the object. The deluded mind feels that we are a self – the subject – but when this delusion dissolves all that remains is just a whole load of passing dhammas. That’s it, nothing else …. which is the start of the next session.

With a big thank you to Andrew Olendzki who has done much of the work here.

Books / Papers

Rupert Gethin, 1998, The Foundations of Buddhism, OUP.

Andrew Olendzki, The Construction of Mindfulness, Contemporary Buddhism, Vol. 12, No. 1, May 2011, Routledge.

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