Present Moment Awareness

Introduction to Buddhist Practice

Nirvana is the highest happiness…the Buddha, as quoted in The Dhammapada, verses 203 and 204.

If we complete this course, it will help us develop the Bodhi Mind – the aspiration to achieve Enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.

On a more mundane level, perhaps we’ll be able to remember past lives, walk on water (yes, that’s in the ancient Buddhist scriptures, too), and other amazing things.

But we don’t practice Zen to get something, we practice to cultivate wholesome states and to abandon unwholesome states.

The aim of all Buddhist practice is to cultivate wholesome states and to allow unwholesome states to wither away.

Once we know this, we can rely on our intuition as to what actions are wholesome and which are unwholesome.

The Buddha was asked:

What makes you different from other people?

He replied:

I am awake.

The first step to “the highest happiness” is…to develop happiness, of course.

Most people are surprised to learn that Buddhism is based on happiness. The people who announce that Buddhism is pessimistic don’t know squat about Buddhism. It’s the Christians who say that people have original sin and are corrupt and need to be saved from their inherent evil. Now that’s a religion based upon pessimism.

Buddhism takes the opposite viewpoint, i.e., that people are inherently pure, wholesome, and complete, just as they are. But we are asleep and don’t know it. That’s why the Buddha said he was different because he was awake.

Buddhism provides a specific technique for building the foundation of happiness upon which all of the rest of Buddhism is supported. An unhappy person has no hope of waking up.

We learn a happiness-building technique in step one of Beginning Zen. It’s called Present Moment Awareness.

If we skip Present Moment Awareness, we have no foundation to support the steps that result in awakening to “the highest happiness.”

The first step to happiness is to “put mindfulness in front of you” as taught by the Buddha in The Anapanasati Sutta. What that means has been explained by the Venerable Ajahn Brahm. He teaches that placing mindfulness up front is a two step practice; Present Moment Awareness is the first of those two steps.

imagesCAEYUI3P.jpg ajahn brahm

Venerable Ajahn Brahm

(now there’s a happy guy!)

Let’s get started! In less than an hour, we will know how to practice authentic Zen. We will be practicing mindfulness, which is the first factor of The Seven Factors Of Enlightenment. The other six factors are built on the foundation of mindfulness and can’t develop in its absence.

Mere suffering exists, no sufferer is found;

The deeds are, but no doer of the deeds is there;

Nirvana is, but not the person who enters it;

The path is, but no traveler thereon is seen.

–chapter 16, section 90 of The Path of Purification

Step 1 – Seeking the Ox

The Tenth Dharma Realm

In the pasture of the world, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the Ox. Following unnamed rivers, lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains, my strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the Ox. I only hear the locusts chirping through the forest at night.

1-ox-herding-looking-for-the-ox one

Seeking the Ox

Present Moment Awareness

Hearing Awareness hears the locusts chirping through the forest at night. The “I” has nothing to do with Hearing Awareness, and Hearing Awareness is not an entity or being.

We begin in the tenth dharma realm, the lowest of all realms. The central practice is counting exhalations in order to cultivate the happiness that is the antidote for the unhappiness that defines this bottom realm.

To seek the ox, we practice Present Moment Awareness as taught by Venerable Ajahn Brahm in Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond.

Here are the preliminaries:

1. We sit facing a wall, maintaining our eyes slightly open but not focused on anything, looking down with the eyes only so that the head is erect. This is the classic Zen meditation posture in a nutshell. Consult The Three Pillars of Zen for a more detailed description of postures.

2. In keeping with both Zen and Theravada training, we try not to move during the sitting. When the body is moving, the mind is moving (an old saying).

3. For beginners, we recommend the quarter lotus. We recommend the half lotus for intermediate practitioners and the full lotus for advanced practitioners.

4. Most Zen teachers advise us to keep the eyes sightly open to ward off sleepiness. However, we don’t focus the eyesight on anything. If a hand were to be waved in front of our eyes, we would notice that. But we wouldn’t notice anything else.

5. If we can remain alert and not sleepy with our eyes closed, it is OK to close the eyes.

As taught by the Venerable Ajahn Brahm, we begin Present Moment Awareness meditation by instructing our mind to:

1. Forget the past;

2. Drop thoughts of the future; and

3. Experience only the present moment.

While seated on our meditation cushion, we can listen to birds chirping, street sounds, and so on, as long as we are only listening to the sounds of the present. We can enjoy the smell of incense as well.

Master Hakuin, over two thousand years after the lifetime of the Buddha, observed that modern (1700s) people did poorly when told to sit quietly in the present moment. So he developed a technique that involves counting the breaths and that’s a technique we can use to develop present moment awareness if the above instructions are too abstract.

So we come to our first merger of Theravada Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. We sit in present moment awareness as instructed by Venerable Ajahn Brahm of the Theravada tradition and then to deepen our present moment awareness we count our exhalations as taught by Zen Master Hakuin.

Counting our exhalations also prepares us for the Tranquil Wisdom meditation of Intermediate Zen, the meditation taught by the Buddha.

Master Hakuin’s meditation is a simplified version of what the Buddha actually taught but it’s effective. Many people have awoken to their inherent Buddha nature over the centuries by following Master Hakuin’s instructions. Its effectiveness and its power to awaken lie in its Zen simplicity.

We mentally count our exhalations from one to ten, and then we do it again. We don’t breathe out so that we can count an exhalation; we breathe naturally. If we are very calm and centered and hardly breathing at all, that’s fine. We just wait for the next exhalation and count it when it naturally appears.

If a breath is long, we mentally count it by extending whatever number it happens to be, such as threeeeeeee or fiiiiiive, and so on.

We don’t congratulate ourselves or celebrate when we reach ten. We just start over at one.

When day-dreaming occurs and we lose track of the number we are on, we abandon the thoughts that intervened and we count the next exhalation as one or oooooone, depending upon its length. In other words, whenever we discover that we have lost track of the practice, we go back to one.

If we become light-headed or dizzy, we know that we are not breathing naturally.

If we concentrate really hard and enjoy counting the exhalations, we will find ourselves counting twelve, thirteen, and beyond. My record is sixteen. When we realize that we have passed ten, we go back to one.

Passing ten or forgetting what number we were on is of course evidence of lack of mindfulness.

Even if we never make it to ten, or if we go past it, we persist in this practice every day. Master Hakuin taught that when we count our breaths, we are doing what a Buddha does.

Consistent, day-by-day, every day practice is required to learn how to sit in Present Moment Awareness. We soon discover that the days we practice Present Moment Awareness are different from the days we don’t.

This is the way we transcend the tenth dharma realm and rise to the ninth.

We will learn what dharma realms are as we encounter them.

We cultivate happiness by practicing Present Moment Awareness. Mindfulness of the present moment produces happiness. It frees us from the past and the future. It allows us to experience the present, a time few people ever experience, a foreign country few people ever visit.

Dharma Master Hsuan Hua, founder of the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, teaches in The Ten Dharma Realms Are Not Beyond A Single Thought that happiness must be cultivated so that we do not descend into the lowest of the ten dharma realms.

Sadness, melancholy, and lamentations prevail there. Western scholars translate the tenth dharma realm as “the hell realm” but that is a misleading translation based upon the Judeo-Christian world view. There is no permanent hell in Buddhism, nor can anyone, other than ourselves, send us to such a place. Everything is mind alone.

In the words of Dogen Zenji, quoted more fully below: All of these (the three worlds of desire, form, and beyond form) are the products of our mind alone. The hell worlds belong to the world of desire (the one we live in) and if we find ourselves in the hell worlds, it was our own thoughts that took us there.

There is no vengeful, jealous and wrathful god who will punish us if we don’t believe in it. Even a few Christians understand this ancient Buddhist view. As John Wesley, a contemporary of Master Hakuin but living on the other side of the globe, said in 1740:

But God resteth in his high and holy place; so that to suppose him, of his own mere motion, of his pure will and pleasure, happy as he is, to doom his creatures, whether they will or no, to endless misery, is to impute such cruelty to him, as we cannot impute to the great enemy of God and man. It is to represent the Most High God as more cruel, false, and unjust than the devil!

That quote is taken from a sermon entitled “Free Grace” as found in The Mind of the Bible-Believer.

But there is a need to fear an undisciplined, pleasure-seeking mind that is awash in ignorance. Ignorance is simply the absence of mindfulness.

The practice of Present Moment Awareness is the first step of the two steps required to develop mindfulness and we can’t move on to the second step until we have mastered sitting in Present Moment Awareness.

Master Hsuan Hua says that when we are angry or sad, we are “taking a vacation in hell.” His point is that only we can send ourselves into misery; no third party, no god, sits in judgment on us.

Hsuan hua

Master Hsuan Hua, Founder of Dharma Realm Buddhist Association


His use of the word “vacation,” is not only humorous but also enlightening: nothing is permanent, not even anger and sadness.

So our first job every morning is to cultivate happiness in order to insulate ourselves from the dharma realm that lacks those qualities.

We cultivate happiness by practicing Present Moment Awareness but happiness alone cannot insulate us from falling into the tenth dharma realm. A church-going, animal-killing, gun-loving, war-monger bigot may be happy. But those who engage in mean-minded activities have no mindfulness.

Thus we understand that the cultivation of happiness requires the cultivation of mindfulness. Acts of cruelty are easy for those who lack mindfulness because they see animals or foreign people as being “others” who are outside their scope of caring.

Nothing is outside the scope of caring for those who are mindful.

This passage is copied from Zen Letters: Teachings Of Yuanwu:

The renowned poet Bo Juyi asked the Bird’s Nest monk: “What is the Way?”

The Bird’s Nest monk said: “Don’t do any evils, do all forms of good.”

Bo Juyi said: “Even a three-year-old could say this.”

The Bird’s Nest monk said: “Though a three-year-old might be able to say it, an eighty-year-old might not be able to carry it out.”

He was called the Bird’s Nest monk because he sat in trees high above the ground when he meditated! He had to be mindful of the present moment to avoid falling.

To understand that happiness and good humor are important parts of spiritual practice is the beginning of wisdom.

As a child, I watched a series of Church of Christ ministers approach their podium every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night, with a solemn, unhappy look. I never saw a smile on a minister’s face as he approached the pulpit.

And the only thing they ever talked about was the need for 100% church attendance and putting money in the collection basket to avoid eternal hellfire.

Many westerners meeting Buddhism for the first time are surprised to learn that the cultivation of joy is one of The Seven Factors Of Enlightenment. Happiness, again, is the foundation upon which all of Buddhism rests. When we make the conscious choice to be happy, and when we persist in daily cultivation, we are seeking the ox and leaving the tenth dharma realm.

The ministers of my childhood were wordlessly teaching just the opposite. Their religion was founded on unhappiness. We were all damned if we didn’t believe that God loved us and he would torture us forever in the most horrible manner imaginable if we didn’t believe he loved us. (That, by the way, is psychological terrorism; we should not subject our kids, or anyone we care for, to such evil teachings).

The happiness that we deliberately cultivate, however, is a far cry from the joy that is the fourth of the seven factors of enlightenment. That joy is experienced only when we arrive at deep levels of meditation. The Buddha called the fourth factor “unworldy rapture.”

Present Moment Awareness is the indispensible first step to those deep levels of meditation.

By cultivating happiness every day, we create one of the conditions that allows that deep meditation to happen.

Ignorance and delusion, the source of unhappiness and dissatisfaction, are dispelled or rooted out at least in part by deep understanding and contemplation of the Four Noble Truths.

The Buddha identified the three roots of evil as greed, hatred and delusion or ignorance. We run toward things we like (greed), we run away from things we dislike (hatred), and we are ignorant of The Four Noble Truths.

So in addition to leaving the tenth, ninth and eighth dharma realms as we practice the first, second and third steps of Beginning Zen, the first three steps of this course are also designed to help us begin to root out ignorance, hatred/ill will, and greed, in that order.

After we have focused calmly on the present moment for a few minutes, which includes counting our exhalations for as long as we can, we are ready for the second step of our morning practice.

Sitting in Present Moment Awareness, which includes the counting of our exhalations as taught by Zen Master Hakuin, makes us happy and we can say goodbye to the lowest of the dharma realms.

It also helps dissolve the first of The Five Hindrances – sense desire.

It is possible to ignore the remaining steps of this course and to attain (uncover) enlightenment just by practicing Present Moment Awareness each day, morning and evening.

If Present Moment Awareness is practiced to perfection on a daily basis, the remaining steps will unfold naturally. However, only those who have sharp karmic roots, developed from many lifetimes of following the Middle Way, are able to practice Present Moment Awareness with perfection.

The rest of us need to follow our Present Moment Awareness with a second practice.

But before we move on, there’s one more technique we can use to develop happiness. This one is so well-known you can read about it in the mainstream media: Smile.

And may we never forget Huang Po:

“The arising and the elimination of illusion are both illusory. Illusion is not something rooted in Reality; it exists because of your dualistic thinking. If you will only cease to indulge in opposed concepts such as ‘ordinary’ and “Enlightened,’ illusion will cease of itself.” The Zen Teaching of Huang Po: On the Transmission of Mind