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The Gradual Training

The gradual training refers to the gradual removal of the five hindrances, the upakilesa in Pali. They are desire, ill-will and aversion, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and remorse and doubt. These are also known as defilements.

We need to remove the gross forms of the hindrances before we attempt to remove the subtle forms. If we try and remove the subtle forms first, it won't work. This article is based on a series of Sutta Study talks given by Ajahn Brahmali.

There are three stages to purifying the mind. Once purified, at least temporarily, we can experience the jhanas.  

Stage one is purifying the gross defilements of our actions, speech and thoughts. The gross thoughts are when we hold the intention to act or speak badly. Stage two is purifying thoughts of desire and ill-will. Stage three is purifying the subtle thoughts that remain. Stages one and two address desire and ill-will only as purifying these two hindrances automatically purifies the last three hindrances since they are largely caused by the first two. Thus stage three purifies the remaining dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and remorse and doubt as well as remaining subtle aspects of desire and ill-will and the sense of self (the sense that there is some aspect of our self that is unchanging, permanent).

The gradual training is how we progress through the first two stages of purification. It is at stage three that our meditation practice takes over. The gradual training has four basic steps:

1. Follow the precepts (moral code) and see danger in the slightest faults.

2. Contentment

3. Wise reflection in regard to the senses (a new translation for what was called sense restraint.....the word restraint gives the wrong impression of what we need to do).

4. Mindfulness and clear comprehension.

Now in detail:

1. The Precepts

- Don't kill. Have compassion for the welfare of all beings.

- Don't take what is not offered.

- Appropriate sexuality

-No lying, deceiving. Be reliable.No divisive speech, no gossiping to split people apart. Reconcile those who have broken apart and cement those who are united. Have a love of concord. Speak in a way that creates concord. No abusive speech. Speak words that are soothing, affectionate, that go to the heart, are polite, appealing and pleasing. No idle chatter. Speak at the right time what is factual, is in accordance with the Dhamma. Speak words worth treasuring. Speak words that are reasonable and circumscribed. Don't argue, saying, "I am right and you are wrong". Don't criticize others.

- Don't take intoxicants that lead to heedlessness. We can't expect ourselves to follow these precepts perfectly....remember, it's a gradual training. We make the intention to follow the precepts and do our best to carry out this intention. Gradually, our habit energy changes and we follow the precepts more and more completely. Happiness arises naturally when we do this. It's the happiness of blamelessness: freedom from regrets and remorse.

2. Contentment

Being content with little and content with what we have. Possessions are a burden. When we get something we may worry about it being stolen or lost or damaged. Often things require maintenance, thus our valuable time. When we are attached to things, we suffer when we are separated from them. And desires don't lead to contentment because as soon as one desire is satisfied, another one pops up! And every time we indulge in a desire, we reinforce the habit of desiring. This makes it more likely we'll be attracted to sensory objects in the future.

We practice contentment with our everyday life as well as during our time in meditation. We practice contentment with whatever our mind throws up at us during meditation.....because it's the reality of that moment. We will respond to it skilfully but with contentment. We won't add the "second arrow" of more suffering to the suffering the mind threw at us.

Being content is the first stage of reducing desires. It falls under Right Effort. Contentment leads to happiness. Once we are content, the next step is possible.

3. Wise reflection in regard to the senses

When seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching or experiencing bodily sensations and when thoughts arise, we don't grasp at the details of the experience which could cause desire or aversion to arise.

Example: if we see something that could arouse desire in us, of if the desire has already arisen, we can let go i.e. stop focusing on the details of what we are seeing and focus on "just seeing". Or we can use wise reflection: consider if satisfying the desire will put us in debt, break our precepts, cause too much maintenance or attention etc. Consider that, yes, satisfying this desire will bring some happiness, but will it be so short lived it's not worth it or does any subsequent suffering outweigh the happiness? With this reflection we may feel the "hot coal" of suffering in our hand. Then we don't need any effort to let go of the desire. As soon as we feel the hot coal, we reflexly drop it! This is wisdom power versus will power. This is the gift of wise reflection.

[Note: please read the article on "What the Buddha says about Wealth". How much we satisfy our desires depends on our income and where we are on the continuum of the spiritual path. Renouncing all attachments to desires is for those who are ready to do so. They have seen the suffering inherent in the sensory world and feel ready to abandon it for the joy of a renounced life (fewer burdens), the joy experienced in deep meditation and the relief of not returning to an existence of suffering.]

Example: if we hear an irritating noise: (this assumes it's not convenient to remove ourselves, close a window, put in ear plugs etc): again, stop focusing on the details of the sound. It's just sound waves contacting the ear drum. Bhikkhu Thanissaro visualizes himself as a screen and the sound waves just pass right through. If aversion arises, notice how this is a "second arrow" i.e. more suffering added on top of the suffering of the noise. Wisely reflect on the added effect of the second arrow until you feel the hot coal and drop it.

Example: Touch or physical sensations can be pleasant or unpleasant. If pleasant, using wise reflection to determine that no precepts are being broken and it's not inappropriate for the present moment, we can just enjoy! But it's important to enjoy without attachment. The sensation is impermanent and if there is attachment there will be suffering when it ends. So use wise reflection to prevent attachment or use it to feel the "hot coal".

If it's unpleasant, and assuming there is nothing more to be done to alleviate the discomfort, we can employ the "holding technique" described in Lesson Three. 

 Another method is to focus on a part of our body that is comfortable and gradually extend this good feeling to the area of discomfort. If aversion starts to arise, or to prevent it from arising, use wise reflection re the "second arrow" to abandon the aversion with wisdom power.

Wise reflection can be applied at any time we become aware that a hindrance has arisen.....or we are aware that there is a danger of one arising. If we know certain situations will arouse a hindrance that we can't yet abandon, then we are wise to avoid those situations.

Wise reflection in regard to the senses leads to an unsullied happiness that is greater than the happiness of the previous steps in the Gradual Training.

4. Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension

This is awareness of what we are doing, what the purpose is of this action and knowing if this action is suitable or not to accomplish the purpose. This is to be practiced for every action we undertake in our daily life.

A natural happiness arises when the hindrances are gone due to mindfulness and clear comprehension that is even greater than the happiness that results from wise reflection in regard to the senses.

Once we have accomplished these four steps of the Gradual Training, we are now ready to sit down and do breath meditation. At this point, breath meditation will easily bear the fruit of stillness and jhana.

This is what the Buddha taught. If we have another method to overcome the hindrances that works, it is good. If it doesn't work, it's not good.

What does meditation practice look like during the different stages of purifying our mind?

From my experience, there is not a distinct line drawn between the three stages of mind purification. Once we set the intention to follow the precepts, to live a moral life, we slide back and forth between the three stages due to triggers and habit energy.

In the first stage of purification, Right Speech is difficult to maintain all the time. Refraining from killing irritating insects is another challenge. If we use harsh speech and then try and meditate, we may be too agitated with remorse to sit and watch our breath. Walking, or even running, meditation may be the best option at this time. Once we are settled enough to sit, we can use wise reflection to review the situation that led to the harsh speech. Forgiveness of ourself, plans to apologize to the other and metta meditation may form part of what happens.

At another time, we may feel settled when we approach our meditation practice. But once sitting, aversion may arise due to the temperature being wrong or due to the presence of some noise or craving for food may arise etc. This is the second stage of purification. We aren't acting out any hindrances....just experiencing them in our mind. This is the time to do wise reflection.

At another time, we may be very peaceful when we sit to meditate and remain that way. Or, in the above two situations, we may settle down due to the hindrances being temporarily abandoned. So now is the time for breath meditation (anapanasati). This is the third stage of purification.

We need guidance to overcome the hindrances - until we experience the jhanas. Once we can easily experience the jhanas, we are self sufficient. So the time to approach a teacher is when we are overcome with the hindrances.

To meditate, the Buddha instructs us to go to a secluded place, to sit comfortably and to put in the causes for mindfulness to arise in front. The causes for mindfulness are the steps of the Gradual Training. The phrase "in front" means in the here and now, the present moment.

The reason breath meditation comes in at this point is that, to work, breath meditation needs mindfulness. And mindfulness comes with the overcoming of the hindrances. And the hindrances are overcome with the Gradual Training. So once the hindrances are subdued to a subtle form we are ready to sit down in a secluded place, bring our mindfulness into the present moment and wait...be patient.....be content. If a subtle hindrance arises, we let it go.

In this third stage of purification, we are dealing with the subtle hindrances. Our mind going out to a sound is a subtle hindrance. A desire is restlessness as we are going out to the future....not being content with the here and now. Doubt means doubt about what is a skilful and an unskilful state of mind. Therefore, it is difficult to purify our mind if we don't know what to abandon. So we mustn't suppress our doubts. It important to discuss them with a teacher. The Buddha listed the subtle defilements of thought as those of relations, country and reputation. These all relate to a sense of self.

Breath meditation (Anapanasati) is the technique to carry out Satipatthana (the four focuses of mindfulness). Both are based on sila (morality) and Right View. The Gradual Training addresses morality. Right View is understanding the Four Noble Truths: there is suffering, there is a cause for it (desire), it's possible for this suffering to cease, and the path to its cessation is the Noble Eightfold Path: Right View (breath meditation), Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood (precepts), Right Effort (contentment, wise reflection in regard to the senses), Right Mindfulness (Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension), Right Samadhi...stillness (the result).

So we can see that the Gradual Training is another way to describe the Noble Eightfold Path.

Once all the subtle hindrances (defilements) are gone, what is left are thoughts of the Dhamma (loving friendliness, compassion, letting go). So the mind is still not tranquil. There is still a subtle sense of a doer who is in control. Once these final thoughts are tranquilized, we enter the jhana states. And when we emerge from this state of stillness, we can direct our mind towards the inconstancy, unsatisfactoriness and non-self nature of our world. The remaining stillness helps us really see these characteristics on a deep level....not just an intellectual level. And we look at the Four Noble Truths. We understand them also on a very deep level. When this deep level of understand clicks in, like a light bulb turning on, we have experienced the first level of Awakening.

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