As with many things about how Buddhism was presented to me initially, this turned out to be incorrect, or at the very least quite incomplete. It is certainly true that understanding the nature of the mind, transforming the mind, and liberating the mind feature heavily in the Buddha's teachings. But the emphasis of Westerners on the importance of mindfulness seemed disproportionate to its importance in the Buddha's teachings once I started reading his discourses in earnest.
The frequent repetition of his admonitions to basic moral fortitude did not fit the narrative I had been presented with about Buddhist teaching. What was even more unexpected is that the Buddha presented correcting our immoral behaviors as the first step on the path to the liberation of our minds, as we can see from the beginning of the following discourse which uses the analogy of the process of refining gold and purifying it to explain how we ought to refine our minds and purify them.
"There are, O monks, gross impurities in gold, such as earth and sand, gravel and grit. Now the goldsmith of his apprentice first pours the gold into a trough and washes, rinses, and cleans it thoroughly. When he has done this, there still remain moderate impurities in the gold, such as fine grit and coarse sand. Then the goldsmith or his apprentice washes, rinses, and cleans it again. When he has done this, there still remain minute impurities in the gold, such as fine sand and black dust. Now the goldsmith or his apprentice repeats the washing, and thereafter only the gold dust remains.
He now pours the gold into a melting pot, smelts it, and melts it together. But he does not yet take it out from the vessel, as the dross has not yet been entirely removed and the gold is not quite yet pliant, workable, and bright; it is still brittle and does not lend itself easily to molding. But a time comes when the goldsmith or his apprentice repeats the melting thoroughly, so that the flaws are entirely removed. The gold is now pliant, workable, and bright, and it lends itself easily to molding. Whatever ornament the goldsmith now wishes to make of it, be it a diadem, earrings, a necklace, or a golden chain, the gold can now be used for that purpose."
As usual, the Buddha has laid out a sequence for us to follow with regard to refinement and purification of materials that will apply to the purification of the mind. The Buddha is extremely adept at articulating the principle in mundane terms and showing us how this principle operates to lead us toward the liberation of mind.
Also as usual, the Buddha has employed an analogy which suggests that the purification process will be painful, that the cleansing of our mind by repeated washing and its purification in fire will be a painful process which is all a part of the cosmology of suffering, though it will lead to peace and freedom from suffering.
"It is similar, monks, with a monk devoted to training in the higher mind.: there are in him gross impurities, namely bad conduct of body, speech, and mind. Such conduct an earnest, capable monk abandons, dispels, eliminates, and abolishes. When he has abandoned these, there are still impurities of a moderate degree that cling to him, namely, sensual thoughts, thoughts of ill will, and thoughts of harming. Such thoughts an earnest, capable monk abandons, dispels, eliminates, and abolishes. When he has abandoned these, there are still some subtle impurities that cling to him, namely, thoughts about his relatives, his home country, and his reputation. Such thoughts an earnest, capable monk abandons, dispels, eliminates, and abolishes.
When he has abandoned these, there still remain thoughts about the teaching. That concentration is not yet peaceful and sublime; it has not attained to full tranquility, nor has it achieved mental unification; it is maintained by strenuous suppression of the defilements. But there comes a time when his mind becomes inwardly steadied, composed, unified, and concentrated. That concentration is then calm and refined; it has attained to full tranquility and achieved mental unification; it is not maintained by strenuous suppression of the defilements."
This all begs the question of why the Buddha would prescribe moral discipline first. Why would he prescribe the abstaining from sex and lustful thoughts, for example, before prescribing the mental disciplines of meditation? Why would he suggest that the moral disciplines support the mental disciplines? Why does he present a freedom from defilements (immoral behaviors) which does not require the suppression of our transient desires as a result of a process of moral discipline?
I would like to suggest some possible answers to this question from my own direct experience. One of the things I've learned from my practice of moral discipline, whether it was fasting from certain foods, abstaining from sex, or sacrificial charitable giving, is that the greatest benefit of moral discipline is that it ends the dominance of the ego over our lives. And the benefit of ending the dominance of the ego over our lives is that it begets amazing improvements in one's clarity of mind.
When the mind is no longer busy constructing complex rationalizations for what the brainstem has been urging it to do out of basic instinct, the striving for immediate gratification is alleviated and right concentration is made possible by the new stillness of mind, a mind which is no longer constantly disturbed by its cravings for actualizing transient desires. At that point the mind can be trained.
The Buddha explained how our transient desires hinder the higher mental training necessary for liberation to a brahmin on one occasion with another analogy. The brahmin asks a question we can all relate to, the question of why we remember some things out of the blue without any effort at times and at other times struggle to recall something we have taken great pains to learn.
"Then the brahmin Sangarava approached the Blessed One, exchanged greetings with him, sat down to one side, and said: 'Master Gotama, why is it that sometimes even those texts that have been recited over a long period do not recur to the mind, let alone those that have not been recited? And why is it that sometimes those texts that have not been recited over a long period of time recur to the mind, let alone those that have not been recited?'
Brahmin, when one dwells with a mind obsessed by sensual lust, overwhelmed by sensual lust, and one does not understand as it really is the escape from arisen sensual lust, on that occasion one neither knows nor sees one's own good, or the good of others, or the good of both. Then even those texts that have been recited over a long period do not recur to the mind, let alone those that have not been recited.
Suppose, brahmin, there is a bowl of water mixed with red, yellow, blue, or crimson dye. If a man with good sight were to examine his own facial reflection in it, he would neither know nor see it as it really is. So too, brahmin, when one dwells with a mind obsessed by sensual lust, overwhelmed by sensual lust, and one does not understand as it really is the escape from arisen sensual lust, on that occasion one neither knows nor sees one's own good, or the good of others, or the good of both. Then even those texts that have been recited over a long period do not recur to the mind, let alone those that have not been recited."
The point is clear, though the water is not; our transient sensual desires are one thing that keeps our minds from the right concentration that would allow us to have healthy mental function. The Buddha goes on to name other things which cloud the the mind's vision with transient desires when we allow ourselves to focus on them: ill will, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and remorse, and doubt. These are the colorful and distracting dyes which obscure the clear water of the unfettered mind.
It is these things that must be removed from our minds by means of the cleansing fire of moral discipline so that the mind can be free to develop the serenity and insight required for mastering the mind on the way to liberation. For the Buddha, it is not the case that we can merely achieve the moral apex of boundless compassion that comes with enlightenment without first practicing moral disciplines, because without moral discipline, our minds are not sufficiently free to discern what is truly good.
This is why the Buddhist tradition prescribes doing meritorious deeds and praying for the good of all beings, a corrective for our tendency to have ill will towards other beings. And why the Buddha repeatedly prescribes abstaining from the use of intoxicants so that we are free of states of dullness or drowsiness and have clarity of mind. It's why we are instructed to relinquish our clinging to the wrongs that have been done to us or the wrongs that we have done. And it's why we are instructed by the Buddha to go to him and to the Dharma for refuge so that we can cease our obsession with our doubts. These are all correctives for the impurity of our minds.
And, to bring it back around, it's also why he gave us frequent admonitions against sexual misconduct which ever re-invigorates our sensual lusts. These moral disciplines of abstaining from sex, believing in the Buddha and the Dharma, avoiding intoxicants (what we would think of as alcohol, marijuana, opiates, or prescription pain medication, which are widely abused), forgiving ourselves and others, performing meritorious deads, and offering them for the good of all beings are what cleans the water of the mind so that it is bright and clear, enabling us to see what is good and true.
"Suppose, brahmin, there is a bowl of water that is not mixed with dyes...If a man with good sight were to examine his own facial reflection in it, he would know and see it as it really is. So too, brahmin, when one dwells with a mind that is not obsessed by sensual lust, ill will, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and remorse, and doubt on that occasion even those texts that have not been recited over a long period recur to the mind, let alone those that have been recited."
But the benefits of moral discipline's dispelling the clouds which obscure the mind's eye are only the beginning. The Buddha explains that once we have access to the higher training of the mind that moral discipline has opened up for us, the spiritual benefits grow even greater as we grow in the mental disciplines he prescribes for us. To return to the discourse on the purification of the mind:
"Then, to whatever mental state realizable by direct knowledge he directs his mind, he achieves the capacity of realizing that state by direct knowledge, whenever the necessary conditions obtain.
If he wishes: 'May I wield the various kinds of spiritual power: having been one, may I become many; having been many, may I become one; may I appear and vanish; go unhindered through a wall, through a rampart, through a mountain as if through space; dive in and out of earth as if it were water; walk on water without sinking as if it were earth; travel through the sky like a bird while seated cross-legged; touch and stroke with my hand the moon and sun, so powerful and mighty; exercise mastery with my body as far as the brahma world'--he achieves the capacity of realizing that state by direct knowledge, whenever the necessary conditions obtain.
If he wishes: 'With the divine ear element, which is purified and surpasses the human, may I hear both kinds of sounds, the divine and human, those that are far as well as near'--he achieves the capacity of realizing that state by direct knowledge, whenever the necessary conditions obtain. ..."
For the Buddha, the mind can conquer matter indeed, but the the mind only conquers the limitations of the matter of our bodies after the body has been disciplined in the cleansing waters of right action. In the end, the Buddha teaches us that the cleansing of the matter of our lives is what allows the mind to triumph over it and discover its liberation.