Buddhism’s emphasis on the importance of mental development is not surprising when we remember the importance of mind in the Buddhist conception of experience. Mind is the single most important factor in the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path. The Buddha himself put this very clearly when he said that the mind is the source of all things and that all things are created by the mind. Similarly, it has been said that the mind is the source of all virtues and other beneficial qualities. To obtain these virtues and qualities, you must discipline the mind. The mind is the key to changing the nature of experience. It is said that, if we had to cover the whole surface of the earth with some soft yet resilient substance to protect our feet from being hurt by sticks and stones, it would be a very difficult undertaking indeed. But merely by covering the soles of our feet with shoes, it is as if the whole surface of the earth were thus covered. In the same way, if we had to purifythe whole universe of attachment, aversion, and ignorance, it would be very difficult indeed, but simply by purifying our own minds of these three afflictions, it is–for us–as if we had purified the whole world of them.
That is why, in Buddhism, we focus on the mind as the key to changing the way we experience things and the way we relate to other people. The importance of the mind has also been recognized by scientists, psychologists, and even physicians. You may be aware of a number of visualization techniques now being used by therapists in the West. Psychiatrists and physicians are successfully employing methods very similar to well-known techniques of meditation to help patients overcome mental disorders, chronic pain, and diseases. This approach is now an accepted practice within the therapeutic community.
We can all appreciate the influence the mind has on our own state of being by looking at our experience. We have all experienced happiness and know how it has a beneficial influence on our activities. When in such a state of mind, we are efficient, we respond appropriately, and we are able to function in the best possible way. On other occasions, when our minds are disturbed, depressed, or otherwise pervaded by harmful emotions, we find that we cannot even discharge simple tasks with care. In this way, we can all see how important the mind is in whatever sphere of our lives we care to consider.
Three steps of the Noble Eightfold Path are included in mental development: (a) right effort, (b) right mindfulness, and (c) right concentration. Together, these three encourage and enable us to be self-reliant, attentive, and calm.
In its most general sense, right effort means cultivating a confident attitude toward our undertakings. We can call right effort “enthusiasm,” also. Right effort means taking up and pursuing our tasks with energy and a will to carry them through to the end. It is said that we ought to embark on our tasks in the same way an elephant enters a cool lake when afflicted by the heat of themidday sun. With this kind of effort, we can be successful in whatever we plan to do, whether in our studies, careers, or practice of the Dharma. In this sense, we might even say that right effort is the practical application of confidence. If we fail to put effort into our various projects, we cannot hope to succeed. But effort must be controlled, it must be balanced, and here we can recall the fundamental nature of the Middle Way and the example of the strings of a lute. Therefore, effort should never become too tense, too forced, and, conversely, it should not be allowed to become lax. This is what we mean by right effort: a controlled, sustained, and buoyant determination. Right effort is traditionally defined as fourfold: (1) the effort to prevent unwholesome thoughts from arising, (2) the effort to reject unwholesome thoughts once they have arisen, (3) the effort to cultivate wholesome thoughts, and (4) the effort to maintain wholesome thoughts that have arisen. This last is particularly important, because it often happens that, even when we have successfully cultivated some wholesome thought, it is short-lived. Between them, these four aspects of right effort focus the energy of the mind on our mental states. Their object is to reduce and eventually eliminate the unwholesome thoughts that occupy our minds, and to increase and establish firmly wholesome thoughts as a natural, integral characteristic of our mental state of being.
Therefore, to manage the effects of such distractions on our minds, we need a guard that can keep our minds from becoming too entangled with such sense objects and with the unwholesome mental states they can sometimes arouse. This guard is mindfulness. The Buddha once told a story about two acrobats, master and apprentice. On one occasion, the master said to the apprentice, “You protect me, and I will protect you. In that way we will perform our tricks, come down safely, and earn money.” But the apprentice said, “No, master, that will not do. I will protect myself, and you protect yourself.” In the same way, each one of us has to guard his or her own mind.
It is at this point that mental development is ready to turn its attention to wisdom. Now we can clearlysee the particular role of meditation in Buddhism. I touched on this briefly when I spoke about the Buddha’s decision to leave the two teachers of meditation, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, and of his combination of concentration and wisdom on the night of his enlightenment. Here, too, single-pointedness of mind by itself is not enough. It is like sharpening a pencil before proceeding to write, or sharpening an ax that we will use to cut off the trunk of attachment, aversion, and ignorance. When we have achieved single-pointedness of the mind, we are then ready to join concentration with wisdom in order to gain enlightenment.
From The Tree of Enlightenment: An Introduction to the Major Traditions of Buddhism, by Peter Della Santina.