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Bliss—nirvana—the Buddha taught, could be found in the fleeting moment through the practice of meditation. The Buddha showed his followers how to come to terms with their own roiling thoughts and desires by paying attention to them—by becoming aware, becoming mindful. As an ancient poem counsels:

Monks meditating
Monks meditating in a group
David Grubin Productions
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“Like an archer, an arrow,
the wise man steadies his trembling mind,
a fickle and restless weapon.”

Venerable Metteyya Sakyaputta, monk: "Many times our mind is not peaceful enough. So we realize that perhaps we need to understand more about mind itself and how to balance the emotions, how to balance our mind, and try to cultivate more happiness."

Venerable Bhaddamanika, nun: "The difficulties come from within. One experiences unexpected things from one’s mind—the most dangerous skeptical doubts. Doubts about one’s self, doubts about the Buddha. Physical, we can get from the food and from the supplement of vitamins. For the mind this is the only medicine."

Metteyya: "Meditation’s not about getting rid of anger, getting rid of lust, or getting rid of jealousy. Even while we become a monk, often we experience anger—it happens. It often happens when people start teasing you like a shaved bald head person, but it gives a good chance for us to realize okay let’s see this anger arises what is it? What most often happens in our ordinary life is whenever we experience these emotions we get stuck into it. It starts twisting us, but Buddhism is going right through inside it and getting out of it peacefully. And I think that gives us more joy. That makes human life more full, more round. We’re not living a partial truth but it’s like whole of things together."

Bhaddamanika: "It takes time to comprehend this. And then by practicing again and again the practitioner becomes very balanced and one reaches the state of very strong equanimity. Equanimity towards the physical and mental objects and this is the base camp for the summit. Enlightenment!"

"After washing my feet," a disciple said, "I watch the water and follow it going down the drain; I am calm. I control my mind like a noble thoroughbred horse. Taking a lamp, I enter my cell. Thinking of sleep, I sit on my bed. I touch the wick. The lamp goes out: Nirvana. My mind is freed."

The mind is as restless as a monkey, the Buddha taught. Who you are, what you think of as your "self," is constantly changing—like a river, endlessly flowing, one thing today, another tomorrow.

Jane Hirshfield, poet: "There’s water in a river, then there’s water in a glass, and then the water is back in the air and then it’s back in the river. The water’s there, but what is it? That’s a way to think about the self in Buddhism. One moment you’re angry, the next moment you’re laughing. Who are you?"

Two monks meditating
Meditation helps to focus the mind
David Grubin Productions
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“A seed becomes a plant;
Wisps of grass are spun into a rope;
A trickling stream turns into a river.”

Hirshfield: "The self comes and the self goes. Simply notice how from one moment to another your self is actually not as much the same as we think it is."

D. Max Moerman, scholar: "What the Buddha realizes is that if we can get rid of this fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the self-based on egotism, we won’t cling to things, we won’t screw up everything we do because we’re thinking about it in the wrong way."

Hirshfield: Once you stop centering your feelings about your feelings on your self what naturally arises is simple compassion; compassion for your own suffering and compassion for the suffering of others.

Even the most abstract of the Buddha's teachings had a practical, ethical dimension. Compassion, the Buddha taught, comes from understanding impermanence, transience, flow—how one thing passes into another, how everything and everyone is connected:

“When this is, that is.
From the arising of this, comes the arising of that.
When this isn't, that isn't.
From the cessation of this, comes the cessation of that.”

Trinh Xuan Thuan, astrophysicist: "This is always connected to that; everything is connected to everything else. You never live by yourself. You live always within a family, society or culture. You constantly interact with other people all the time. So our happiness depends on their happiness as well. How can we be happy if we are the only one happy on just an island of happiness within an ocean of misery? Of course that’s not possible."

Continue to "Compassion"

Major funding provided by: National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by: the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Shinnyo-en Foundation, the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, the Bumper Foundation, and viewers like you.