By The Most Ven Dr M Vajiragnana
MEDITATION = AWARENESS
KINDS OF MEDITATION
There are two kinds of Buddhist meditation: Calming Meditation (samatha), which calms our minds and leads to higher states, called jhanas (a word which is often translated as Absorption and which will be more fully described later), and Insight Meditation (vipassana), which improves and cultivates our insight, a word which has a special meaning in Buddhism. They are complementary to each other.
The samatha system of meditation may, however, be regarded as optional, as it is seen in Buddhism only as a discipline preparatory to the attainment of wisdom. But vipassana, being a direct path to wisdom, is regarded in Buddhist teaching as an important and unique system.
The employment of Samatha meditation for cultivating tranquillity goes back to a time before the Buddha; in all probability it is a very ancient practice. Prior to the attainment of Buddhahood, Prince Siddhartha spent six long years investigating the teachings of the major philosophers of his day. He practised meditation as it was understood at the time, i.e. Samatha meditation. His teachers had reached the highest Jhanas. Prince Siddhartha followed suit but found that even though he attained that same high level of absorption, still he did not solve the problems that confronted him. This kind of meditation did not supply the cure for the greatest of woes. Even when his mind was firmly established in complete Absorption, it was not in a permanent state and there was still no explanation for, or understanding of, the problems of human existence. So he persisted in his investigations and eventually discovered the practice of Vipassana meditation, which enabled him to reach Enlightenment and to become the Buddha (literally, the “one who knows”).
The practice of meditation should not be disconnected from our daily life, nor should it interfere with our routine. It should be resolved by the meditator that he or she will devote some time to it every day. Regularity of practice is important. Training the mind is like training the body - the greatest benefits can be experienced by establishing the habit of practising regularly. Try, if possible, to sit at the same time of day; shorter periods on a daily basis are more helpful than one long session once a week. People often say that they cannot find time or a suitable quiet place to meditate. Surely it is possible to find a way to have 15 minutes of quiet if we so desire.
There is no specific instruction concerning a suitable time for meditation. Serious meditation students devote most of the day to their practice, but those people who have busy lay lives should choose a regular period once or twice a day. Having chosen a particular time or times, try to keep to an established routine. Some of us will meditate after lunch, some in the evenings, some in the mornings. Some of us are “owls” and some are “larks” and only you really know just when you are at your best. It would not be conducive to the practice for an “owl” to meditate in the mornings or for a “lark” to sit at night. The important thing to remember is that the success of the practice depends on the harmony of body and mind. In order to bring them to their zenith the body and mind must be in balance and in accord with each other. We cannot meditate if the mind is drowsy, lazy or restless. The best time for meditation is that part of the day when both body and mind are most regularly at their peak.
Although meditation is a practice to be incorporated into our everyday life, some people find it helpful to go on retreats. A retreat may last for a day, a weekend, several weeks or even months. During this time it is possible to free ourselves from the normal pressures and distractions of everyday life and to apply ourselves to more intensive practice in an environment which has been specifically designed to encourage meditation. We benefit from a set programme and routine which support the meditator. Even apparently small items in the routine may be helpful. For example, a gong may be struck from time to time which acts like a reminder and helps to direct the wandering mind back to the meditation object.
As regards the place in which to start our practice, in the Buddhist scriptures it refers to a monk having “gone to the forest, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty place [a hill, a rock cleft, a mountain cave, a charnel ground, a forest thicket, an open space, a heap of straw]”. In these days it might not be so easy to find a convenient forest or heap of straw, but the words are not to be taken too literally. We can all find a quiet place where we can be alone, undisturbed by people and external conditions. It is true to say that we can meditate almost anywhere, even whilst walking or travelling by bus or train, but a quiet, comfortable place is most conducive to concentration.
Nowhere is entirely without noise, even if we were to retire into the jungle, the twittering of birds, the wind and the rustle of leaves are all disturbing, to say little of the ants and mosquitoes! Also, whilst enjoying the seclusion of such a place, it is known that the imagination plays havoc and frightening things may be seen. We are warned about this and advised always to study every detail of our surroundings, only then can our imagination be brought under control. So wherever we are meditating we must be prepared to tolerate the inevitable outside distractions.
It is useful to establish one place exclusively as the “sitting place” or “meditation seat”. The habitual use of this seat solely for this purpose will precondition both the body and the mind into a calm, peaceful and receptive state whenever we sit there. In ancient days a yogi might sit on a tiger skin or a deer skin which would immediately help to prepare both his mind and his body; in the same way we should associate ourselves with our chosen place, which is kept clean and prepared for meditation.
The same flexibility as regards time and place for meditation applies equally to posture. The basic postures used for meditation are sitting and walking.
The generally recommended posture for meditation is to “sit erect with mindfulness alert”. This does not, though, demand that you sit in the full lotus position with ankles placed on top of the thighs. If you are capable of sitting in the full lotus or half-lotus position comfortably for some time, then that is fine. Many people, however, are not able to do this, and so the use of a chair, cushion or small meditation bench is quite acceptable. It is good if the seat is neither too high, nor too low, nor too comfortable. If you are seated on the floor, a hard cushion approximately six to eight inches high creates a posture that allows free circulation of the blood and minimises discomfort. The important thing is to adopt a good posture, because poise of the body brings poise of the mind.
The hands should be resting, palms upwards, on the lap or the crossed legs. Make sure that the position is comfortable and no tension is allowed to develop in the upper arms or shoulders because of poor positioning of the hands. The back must be upright and still. Now allow the shoulders to drop naturally, and try to get the feeling that your centre of gravity is just a little below the navel.
When you start meditating, begin by just getting the FEEL of the posture. Take your time over this process because it is important.
Once you are seated comfortably, close your eyes, or, if you prefer, half close them and gaze past the tip of the nose. The advantage for the beginner of closing the eyes fully is that it reduces the number of distractions by shutting out all unnecessary light and visual stimuli. This can, however, lead to drowsiness. The Buddha is usually portrayed as sitting with half-closed eyes, looking past the tip of his nose, at a point approximately one metre away. Choose whichever technique you find more comfortable. You could try at the start of your meditation closing your eyes lightly, then, should you find drowsiness coming on, open your eyes slightly. Do not look around, but leave your gaze unfocused. After experimenting in this way you will ward off sleep successfully.
Now relax the body from the top of the head downwards, consciously considering the scalp and relaxing it; the muscles of the face and relaxing them; the neck and relaxing it; and so on, until the whole body is relaxed, calm and supple. This relaxation is most important because, if the body is hard, tense and stiff, it may induce feelings of pain, dissatisfaction, restlessness and a general air of distraction, which is not conducive to concentration.
Essential to all harmonious human relationships is the practice of love. Buddhists term this special quality Metta or “loving-kindness”, which is regarded as so important that a specific meditation practice has been developed around it.
This kind of meditation can be practised daily, either by itself or as a preparation for other practices which will be described later. Metta is an attribute which we should all strive to develop to the maximum. It is particularly useful as a means of arousing positive states of mind in order to overcome anger and other negative states. This meditation helps when the concentration is weak and the mind is distracted. Metta is such an important quality that it needs to be described in detail.
Metta is a radiance, which springs from a pure heart; it may be thought of as universal goodwill. There is no one word in the English language which describes fully such a profound state of mind. Many different words have been used to translate metta into English, such as “love”, “loving-kindness” and “universal love”, but metta has a much deeper sense than is conveyed by any of these words. It is the foundation of all good qualities in a person; in fact, it can be said that our entire spiritual development should be built on metta. It is the basis of all virtues.
When metta is translated as “love”, people may form the impression that it involves some kind of attachment, but in this kind of love there is no trace of personal attachment. It is an altruistic, friendly feeling which is entirely free from lustful desires. We do not expect anything in return from those to whom we radiate this characteristic. They may not even know that we are radiating metta towards them, but by doing this, we fill our own hearts with peace and happiness. In this process, there is no room for mana, which is often translated as “conceit”, but which means literally “measuring”, namely measuring ourself against others in the sense of feeling superior or inferior or even equal to others.
No discriminatory thoughts should arise in the mind, metta is not limited by divisions such as “us, “them”, “national”, “international”, “high”, or “low”, etc. The person who truly practises metta radiates this quality equally and impartially in all directions - north, south, east, west, above and below. Not only are all human beings included, but also all animals and even the environment too. The true practitioner pollutes neither the land, nor the air, nor the water; doing nothing which may spoil the environment in anyway or disturb others because there is such a caring but unbiased feeling towards all objects, both animate and inanimate.
To develop metta is to bring peace, both to oneself and to others. This is such a sublime state that it has been described by the Buddha as a “heavenly abode”, in the sense that when you develop metta, even if only for a little while, you become like a divine person and experience divine feelings. This has the power to transform a man into a superman. It is a defining characteristic of every spiritually advanced person.
Metta is a force for the removal of all unpleasantness and unhappiness, both in the family and in society at large. Metta is the exact opposite of anger, resentment and illwill because it is a pure form of goodwill which is extended without any limitations to the entire phenomenal world. Anger always arises because of attachment to the idea of self or “I am” (sakkaya-ditthi), but there is no room for this kind of attachment in the practise of metta. Anger is a mental state which spoils our behaviour, it can lead to the destruction of our possessions, and can even make us sick. We can observe how its arising brings about immediate changes in the appearance both of ourselves and others. Anger is responsible for many of the problems in the world, from petty quarrels or strife up to world wars. In the Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha says that there are seven characteristics of an angry person which will be a cause of satisfaction to his enemies:
1. No matter how he may be dressed, he will look ugly.
2. He may be living in the lap of luxury, but he will be in pain.
3. Because he cannot think properly, he will mistake good for evil, and evil for good, and so he loses his belongings.
4. He loses whatever fame he had achieved through previous diligence.
5. He loses his friends.
6. When he dies, he is reborn in an unhappy place.
7. When all this happens, one who hates the angry person will derive tremendous satisfaction from his sufferings.
On many occasions the Buddha pointed out the negative effects of anger. In the Dhammapada we read, “Hatred is never appeased by hatred; through love alone it ceases. This is an eternal law.” (Dhammapada v.5) Hatred confuses the mind by destroying the concentration. No angry person can devote attention fully to a chosen subject because the mind is restless, confused and distracted by other thoughts. This is also true for meditators and that is why metta is especially helpful for clearing the mind of negative thoughts at the start of a meditation session.
Metta has been compared with parental love. There is no purer form of selfless goodwill than the love which a mother has for her own child. Similarly, we should develop metta towards all beings. There is no limit to which this practice can be developed. The heart should overflow with love. Once the Buddha told his monks, “Suppose a man has his hands cut off by robbers with a double-handed saw. Even then he should not feel angry. If he gives way to anger, then he is not following my teachings. He who hates others only hurts himself. But he who does not give way to hatred, even though he has been injured, emerges victorious.” (Kakacupama Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya). In the Itivutthaka, the Buddha said,
“Of all the kinds of worldly enjoyment, nothing has even one-sixteenth of the freedom of the radiant heart that metta brings”.
We should start with developing metta towards ourselves. You cannot radiate to others what is not already within yourself. Therefore, start with yourself and repeat these words, “May I be free from anger; may I be free from enmity; may I be free from anxiety. May I be happy and peaceful.” Repeating this as many times as possible, fill your entire being with loving feelings from head to toe so that you become an embodiment of loving-kindness. By cutting off all kinds of negative thoughts, through the power of metta we can protect ourselves from the hostile vibrations of other people.
Having developed this attribute as fully as possible towards ourselves, then we can extend it towards others. Start this process by including people for whom you feel great respect and reverence, such as parents and teachers. Then include members of your family and friends. Slowly expand these feelings to include people living close by, then those living further away, then people to whom you feel generally neutral, and eventually include people who may even be regarded as “enemies”. By continuing in this fashion, we expand our metta to include all beings, regardless of their characteristics or their circumstances, irrespective of status, nationality, or sex.
There are certain kinds of people to whom it is not helpful to direct our thoughts of metta at the start of our meditation. Exclude people to whom you may be sexually attracted as this may give rise to lust; exclude persons for whom you have aversion or resentment as this may give rise to anger; and exclude anyone who has recently died as this may give rise to sorrow.
Expanding from the world of human beings, we continue to radiate our feelings of metta embracing all kinds of animals, insects and other living creatures, also including those beings living in heavens and purgatories. Metta should be radiated without any limitations or obstructions. Thus we come to identify ourselves with all beings, thinking “As I am, so may all beings be happy”.
One of the most important of the Buddha’s discourses is the Karaniya Metta Sutta in which the development of metta is described as follows:-
“May all beings be happy and secure, may their hearts be wholesome!
“Whatever living beings there be - those mentally feeble or strong; physically long, stout or medium, short, small or large; those seen or unseen, dwelling far or near; those who are born and those who are to be born - may all beings, without exception, be happy-minded!
“Let none deceive another nor despise any person whomsoever in any place, in anger nor ill-will let one not wish any harm to another.
“Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life, even so, let one cultivate a boundless heart towards all beings.
“Let thoughts of infinite love pervade the whole world - above, below and around - without any obstructions, without any hatred, without any enmity.
“Whether standing, walking, sitting or lying down, as long as one is awake, this mindfulness should be developed: this, the wise say, is the highest conduct here.”
The beneficial results of this practice are enormous. According to the scriptures, in the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha said that there are eleven benefits which come to the mind of someone who practises metta:
1. He sleeps in comfort.
2. He awakes comfortably.
3. He has no evil dreams.
4. He is dear to human beings.
5. He is dear to non-human beings.
6. Gods protect him.
7. Fire, poison and weapons cause no harm (to his mental tranquillity).
8. His power of concentration is very high.
9. His face has a serene expression.
10.He will have a peaceful death.
11.After death, he will be reborn in a heavenly realm.
Let us turn now to the technique of establishing mindfulness of breathing (Anapanasati). The purpose of this meditation is to become MINDFUL. The Pali word sati is often translated as “mindfulness”, but “awareness” is more direct.
You should find a quiet place and sit comfortably, relaxed, but also alert. You are balanced. And you are breathing. It is true that you have been breathing all the time, but now you are intentionally becoming aware of it. Do not attempt to control the breathing in any way. Simply allow breathing to happen naturally in the same way as you allow swallowing to happen when you drink.
Breathing is the most discernible and constant function of the body. It is fundamental to life. Anapanasati is very simply being mindful, being fully aware of the breath as you inhale and as you exhale. It sounds simple and easy, child’s play in fact! Just while you are reading this, stop and relax for a few moments, then watch the breath as it enters the body and leaves it! Let the breath do the breathing, all on its own, after all it didn’t need you to interfere before, did it? Now watch.......
In order to help follow the breath it is essential to establish one-pointedness of mind by directing your attention to one spot, either the tip of the nose where the breath first touches or the abdomen. If you hold the attention on the touch of the air passing the tip of the nose, you may find it helpful to notice a slight cooling sensation on inhalation and a warming sensation on exhalation as the breath flows past the nostrils.
Alternatively, the breath can be observed as it causes the abdomen to rise and fall. When you breathe normally and naturally the inhalation causes the abdomen to swell or rise, and the exhalation will cause the abdomen to fall. The breath can then be observed by watching this rising and falling, and mentally noting, “rising, rising”, and “falling, falling”.
A word of caution is necessary here, when one method of observation has been adopted it is as well not to mix it with the other method. Therefore an inhalation being observed by watching the abdomen should not be followed by an exhalation observed by watching the breath pass through the nostrils. Keep to the one method that has proved most beneficial to you. There is flexibility in these techniques, but be vigilant and do not change methods just for the sake of change.
To be aware of breathing you must be aware of the breath you are taking in NOW, not the one before and not the next one. Be aware of it at the chosen point of the body. This is known simply as “one-pointedness”.
At this stage be careful not to follow the breath as it flows through the body. The technique is just to observe the breath at the chosen point. Be like a gate-keeper of an old, walled city. His job is simply to note people as they arrive and leave. What they do inside the city is of no concern to the gate-keeper. Similarly, what happens to the breath inside his body is not the concern of the meditator.
You may have noticed that some breaths were longer than others, some may have been quite short, perhaps one inhalation was very long and the exhalation was quite short. Just note the breathing, taking each breath, each inhalation, each exhalation in turn and observe it without making judgements. When you breathe in note the whole in-breath, when you breathe out note the whole out-breath, its beginning, its middle and its end, noting whether it is short or long, deep or shallow. Do not force the breath, this is not a breathing exercise, it is an exercise in mindfulness. The breath should be left to breath, on its own, and all you do is note it mentally!
All the while you have been observing the breath, your mind has been preoccupied with the novelty of the new game, but now the novelty has started to wear thin. The mind, in its incessant pursuit of things to think about, is impatient to be off into some new fantasy or other. The merest excuse will do to distract the mind from the disciplined observation of the breath. Perhaps you heard something, a car, or a bird, or someone talking? You thought about it, considered what it was, whether you should investigate it, but whatever you did think, you took your mind away from the breathing and pursued the new object of thought.
Back to breathing! After a while you may have remembered something, something you should do at once in case you forget! Or maybe you remembered something pleasant or unpleasant, and just for a few moments you considered its relative importance. Return the awareness to the breathing. All the time, during this very brief period, thoughts have been rising in your mind as you tried to watch the breath come and go. The important thing here is to be mindful, just to observe the thoughts as they arise and to make the note: “thought”; to observe the distractions such as noises as: “sound”; and so on. Simply be aware of them and after noting their arising return to the observation of the breath. Of course, distracting thoughts will arise; you cannot expect to be able to eliminate them right from the very beginning. The important thing is to become aware as soon as such a thought arises, but not to get upset that it has arisen
If you have difficulty in concentration, if your mind is constantly occupied with some thought or other, then it may be an advantage to settle the mind for a while by counting the breaths. This method is reasonably simple and effective: on every in-breath count one, until you reach ten after ten breaths, then start again. Another way is merely to count every inhalation and exhalation thus:
inhaling, one; exhaling, two; inhaling, three; exhaling four, etc. until you reach ten. Never go above ten or you will be concentrating on the numbering rather than on the breathing.
When you practise in this way, you should be able to build up your concentration. Some people may find that they miss certain numbers out or count two breaths once, or carry on counting beyond ten, or they may lose track altogether in the middle! Such people should persevere but should also be careful not to become disheartened, depressed or disappointed. Perhaps they should practise for shorter periods each day or maybe shorter periods more frequently.
Every time the mind wanders, it should be brought back and anchored on the chosen point, that is the nostrils or the abdomen. The mind may stay there for a while and then wander away again. Mindfully bring it back and focus it again on the subject. It is a concerted effort to focus the attention, made by the meditator willingly and with full awareness.
The Buddha likened effort to the string of a lute. If the string is too tight, the wrong note will be produced. Similarly, if it is too slack the wrong note will also be produced. Only the right degree of tension will produce the correct note. Similarly, the right degree of effort is required in meditation.
When the practice is established and concentration becomes easier, then you can look at the breathing in more detail. You can observe the flow of the air during the breath, noting the pause, if any, between inhaling and exhaling, exhaling and inhaling and noting when the breath appears to stop. (This stop may seem quite alarming, but it is quite natural, because your sense of time makes a pause seem like eternity!)
As you achieve success in this practice, you will find that your concentration will extend little by little. The body becomes relaxed and breathing becomes gentle. There is a feeling of peace. Events outside or inside the mind no longer distract you from the object of meditation.
Breathing meditation is but one part, albeit a self-sufficient one, of the system of meditations called Satipatthana or the Foundations of Mindfulness. These are four in number and are sub-divided into various subjects. Initially, we shall look at them as separate entities but in reality we should see them as one interrelated whole.
The first part is called Mindfulness of Body, that is, this physical body. Within this section we have (1) mindfulness of in- and out-breathing, which we have just examined, (2) consideration of the four postures, walking, standing, sitting, and lying down, (3) paying full attention to whatever one is doing, (4) contemplation on the 32 parts of the body - this section contains very useful considerations which we shall come to later, (5) analysis of the Four Elements, and (6) the cemetery contemplations.
The second part is called Mindfulness of Feelings. Using the same technique of concentration, we can observe feelings as they arise. During this practice note the various sensations giving rise to pain, pleasure or indifference, here again simply note that, “pain has arisen”, or “pleasure has arisen”, or that neither pleasure nor pain has arisen, which is a neutral experience. As in the previous section simply note the existence of these states, note how they arise and how they pass away but do not dwell on them, observe simply their arising and their passing away.
The third part is Mindfulness of Mind or mindfulness of the states of consciousness. This is the noting of the state of mind - whether it is angry, sad, distracted, deluded or loving, concentrated or compassionate. Difficult as it is at times, we should be aware of our state of mind and note it. We should not allow ourselves to be distracted, but should merely note that such and such a state of mind has arisen. Later you may begin to note how these states arise and how they pass away.
The fourth part is meditation on specific ethical, spiritual and intellectual subjects listed in the Discourse on Mindfulness as Mindfulness of Mental Objects. (Please refer to the section of the sutta shown later.) Whilst we are engaged in meditation on one of these mental objects, we should not allow the mind to wander around the subject. Direct the mind to an analytical approach, considering the arising of the particular object and examining it in depth, not allowing the mind all the while to deviate or repeat itself.
The process of concentration described in each of the above four sections of this discourse is samatha meditation, but at the end of each section we are advised to contemplate the true nature of the activity on which we are maintaining our awareness. This represents a switch from samatha to vipassana, in which we become aware of the arising and ceasing of each object, as impermanent, as subject to change, and as devoid of any abiding essence. For example with Mindfulness of Mind, it is important to observe when a state of mind such as anger or happiness or joy arises, and note it as “there is anger”, etc. and not as “I am angry”. The statement “I am angry” precludes any objective attempt to examine what really is experienced. We are not interested in the “I” that thinks that it is angry but only in the arising and the cessation of the mental state of anger, hence we note, “there is anger”. If we examine the experience of a mental state such as anger or joy objectively, as it arises, we shall not be able to find any self or “I” to which this state is attached. Examined dispassionately we can only say, “there is joy”, or “there is anger”.
In addition to sitting meditation, walking meditation is a very useful aid and adjunct. In meditation centres where the practice of meditation is intensive, the periods of sitting meditation are broken up with periods of walking meditation. This is not just good exercise or done for a change, it is an integral part of the practice and is a form of meditation in its own right. It is particularly useful for establishing concentration, and you can practise almost anywhere that is quiet and undisturbed. You can walk miles in your own bedroom!
Having established a suitable place, start off fairly slowly, noting each footstep one after the other thus:
left, right, left, right After some time begin to note more details within each step: up, over, down, up, over, down, up..... and note each movement of the feet, legs, etc. when turning, straightening the body, stopping, in fact whatever the body does, note it! When you are standing, simply note that you are standing.
As with Anapanasati, when the object is well established, you can then become aware of the various sensations and associated mental states as they arise and note them. Consider that there are three elements to any bodily movement. These are known as citta (the thought of making the movement), kiriya (the function which activates the movement), and vayo-dhatu (the internal air element which causes the movement). Any movement of the body is dependent upon all three coming together.
In fact awareness should be extended to include whatever posture the body is in; no matter what the body is doing, be aware of it, from the top of the head down to the tip of the toes. Whether sitting, walking, standing or lying down, this mindfulness should be constantly maintained. When the mind has been established one-pointedly on whatever the body is doing in that particular moment, then direct the attention to become aware of the impersonal nature of the bodily process which is being observed. For example when walking, become aware simply of the movement of the feet and legs; how the movement of each limb arises, changes and ceases.
There is yet another meditation posture: lying down. This is also suitable for the practice of mindfulness of breathing and of other practices such as the kasinas and discursive contemplation (more about these later), but it is necessary here to be on guard not to fall asleep! It is better to lie on the right side so as to keep the heart free of pressure and allow the blood to circulate more easily. Be mindful of how the body is lying. Be aware of how the limbs are arranged. In addition to the meditations already discussed, there are a number of other valuable practices to be considered.
The reflection on the 32 parts of the body is useful for developing an awareness of the true nature of this body. At first sight it may appear quite beautiful and we attach much value to it as an attractive object. This is only a partial view, however, and totally ignores the body in its less appealing states. When Prince Siddhartha awoke in the early hours of the day on which he left his palace for the homeless life, he saw his servants and dancing girls asleep on the ground. Their bodies were carelessly disarranged in sleep and the sight filled him with disgust. On the surface lies the body’s beauty, but underneath the skin lies the truth of this body. There is an appropriate Pali proverb which says:
sace imassa kayassa - anto bahirato siya, dandam nuna gahetvana - kake soneca varaye.
If one could turn this body inside out -
be ready to chase away the crows and dogs.
The 32 parts of the body are enumerated in the Satipatthana Sutta but the first five are of particular note. These are the hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth and skin. These five are those parts of the body which are beautified and adorned. They should therefore be paid special attention and efforts should be made to see them in their true nature.
A husband may be very impressed with his wife’s hair-do, so expensively acquired by skill at the hairdressers, a great deal of effort and technology has gone into the creation this superb coiffure. Her husband acclaims it as a beautiful style which enhances his wife’s beauty and they are both pleased and gratified by the appearance. The husband, however, sings a different song sometime later, when, as he sits down to his dinner, he finds mixed up with the food one of the selfsame hairs he praised so highly only hours before. He is so disgusted that he is unable to eat the food and admonishes his wife in no uncertain terms. The hair itself is no different in either case, but the hair’s function has changed; that change has brought about this unsatisfactory state of affairs. In this way should these five parts of the body be contemplated, drawing from our own experiences the unpleasantness of the hair, nails, teeth and skin. The remaining parts of the body are repulsive in their nature, being sweat, grease, fat, bile, mucous, urine, etc.
This meditation is particularly useful for people of a lustful disposition whose faculties are fascinated by the appearance of the body. For those of us who are assailed daily by sensuous advertising in the cities, this meditation may also be a counter-balance against unwholesome thoughts.
There is the contemplation of the four elements. Matter is deemed to be composed of four elements, namely, earth (pathavi), water (apo), fire (tejo,), and air (vayo). They each have their own characteristics. Earth has the characteristic of solidity or extension. Water has the characteristic of fluidity and cohesion. Fire has the characteristic of heating, and air or wind has the characteristic of motion. All matter is composed of all four elements but, where one element predominates, then a substance can be said to be solid, or liquid, etc.
The elements can be observed during meditation, in relation to the body, particularly as heat or water.
For instance when the body perspires, note: “There is excess of the water element”. Or perhaps the bodily activities are causing discomfort and restlessness, in which case we should note: “There is excess of the air element or motion”. By noting the arising and ceasing of these states we shall come to realise that this body is in a constant state of flux, is impermanent and is liable to decay.
A most effective meditation designed to arouse indifference to the body and leading to an integral understanding of both it and its constituent parts is the Cemetery Contemplations. These were performed by meditative monks in the charnel ground, studying a corpse. In order to practise this successfully, the meditator must first establish good concentration. He must be mentally sharp and alert if he is to see the decomposition of the body as it is taking place. Every stage of decomposition is contemplated as being of the true nature of the body. The monk considers that decomposition is inevitable and that this body of his is also destined to reach a similar state of putrefaction. Perhaps people are fortunate that in this age we cannot be given this subject of meditation!
Another form of meditation involves the use of an object known as a kasina, of which there are ten different kinds. A kasina is an external device used as a means of focusing and developing concentration. We take an object such as a coloured disc or circle of clay, to which we give our full and undivided attention. After prolonged practice this image will remain even when the eyes are closed. By persevering in this practice we shall reach a state of mind in which all sense-activity is suspended.
Yet another form of meditation is Discursive Contemplation, such as Reflection on the Virtue of Holy People. Here a Buddhist would reflect on the loving-kindness of the Buddha; Hindus may choose a deity and reflect on the aspect it represents; a Christian will reflect upon Christ and his self-sacrifice.
Of these many different kinds of meditation, there are some which require a skilled meditation teacher to ascertain your particular temperament and identify which technique is best suited to your character. Mindfulness of breathing and Metta, however, are suitable for all people and were highly recommended by the Buddha himself.
Mention should be made here of the question of “energy”. If you try too hard because of over-enthusiasm, the mind becomes confused and distracted by an excess of energy. This makes it hard to concentrate. On the other hand, if you do not try hard enough, you may sink into lethargy, indolence or day-dreaming.
Energy is one of five faculties (indriya-samatta) which must be in equilibrium. The five are faith (in the sense of confidence based on knowledge), understanding, mindfulness, concentration and energy. Faith should be balanced with understanding, and concentration with energy. Someone who has an abundance of faith, but little understanding is in danger of accepting things uncritically. Someone who has strong understanding but who is weak in faith errs on the side of cunning. By balancing these two faculties you develop justified confidence based on proper understanding. Similarly, someone who is strong in concentration, but weak in energy is liable to idleness. Someone who is full of energy but lacking in concentration is in danger of becoming agitated. A balance between these two faculties ensures that energy does not lapse into idleness, and concentration does not lapse into agitation. Helping to maintain the balance between the other four faculties is mindfulness, which is needed in all instances. It acts as the mind’s refuge, protector, activator and restrainer. Its importance is likened to that of salt which must be present in all manner of different sauces.
There are obstacles to your progress in meditation which are known as the Five Hindrances (Nivarana). These are sensual desire, anger, laziness, restlessness and doubt. Each one of these states is an effective block to any advancement and should be removed as far as is possible.
First of all, you should simply be aware that “anger has arisen”, or that “there is restlessness”. Initially you may not be very successful at overcoming these Hindrances, but the mindfulness of these states is a very important first step. It takes a certain amount of courage to admit to yourself that negative states do exist in your mind, but you must be honest with yourself. When you can observe how such a state of mind arises and how it passes away, then intervention becomes possible, enabling you to maintain an objective viewpoint and to refrain from identifying yourself with these states. As your meditative skills develop, your mindfulness deepens so that you can identify the arising of negative states earlier and earlier, and ultimately you may be able to prevent them from arising at all.
When we practise concentration on breathing or any other object, such as a kasina, we try to attain one-pointedness or singleness of mind. The aim is to exclude all extraneous thoughts which clutter the mind so that the mind dwells uninterruptedly on the chosen object. If we practise thoroughly, earnestly and with dedication, there is a sequence of five attributes which will be developed. These, in their turn, lead to the overcoming of the five hindrances previously mentioned, Each attribute suppresses one particular hindrance and together they make it possible to attain the first absorption or Jhana.
The first attribute is vitakka (thought conception), the initial application of the mind to the object of meditation. This has been likened to a bee choosing and landing on a flower, or a sailor eventually reaching an island after a shipwreck, for it needs a degree of energy to apply the mind to the object, namely the tip of the nostrils. This cannot be achieved by a lazy mind, but the wholehearted application of the mind results in the suppression of the hindrance of thina-middha, laziness and inactivity.
The second attribute is vicara (discursive thinking), the sustained application of the mind to the object, in which the meditator studies the object thoroughly. This is like the bee searching the flower to locate the exact source of the nectar, or the shipwrecked sailor coming to know all the characteristics of the island he has reached, such as sources of food and water, etc. Here the meditator studies the nature of the breathing in detail, its variations, whether it is long or short, where precisely it touches the nostrils and so on. In this process confidence develops and the meditator overcomes uncertainty about meditation (vicikiccha), which is a state in which the mind wavers.
The meditator will find that this examination pleases him, and this leads to the arising of the third attribute, piti, which is a joyful feeling in the mind. This feeling leads to the suppression of anger, displeasure or disliking (vyapada).
This feeling of joy leads on to sukha, which is happiness. This sense of happiness means the meditator is now calm, both physically and mentally. The meditator experiences restfulness in mind and body, and so the fourth hindrance is inhibited, that is restlessness and worry (uddhacca-kukkucca). Piti is like the sight of a clear pool to our sailor; sukha is like drinking water from it and bathing in it.
In this situation of profound calm, the concentration becomes well established on the object and uninterrupted. This leads to what is called upekkha or equanimity, which means viewing an object with a balanced mind, having transcended both pain and pleasure, and having eliminated both attachment and aversion with regard to all conditioned things. This leads to the suppression of sensual desires (kamacchanda).
At each stage in this process two things happen at the same time - the wholesome state of mind develops and the associated hindrance is suppressed. When all these five attributes are working together in unison, the first jhana is attained. This is a state in which the mind is devoid of the five hindrances and endowed with the five jhanic factors.
Compared with its ordinary state, the mind is now highly developed. Right up to the stage of upekkha the mind is still directed towards the meditation object; the jhanic factors are the outcome or result of this concentration. This is, however, a rather delicate state of mind, which is vulnerable to disruption and easily lost. It must be strengthened by cultivating the following five habits (panca vasita) -
1. Avajjana vasita - turning the attention to the Jhana.
2. Samapajjana vasita - inducing and maintaining it.
3. Adhitthana vasita - pre-determining the period of its maintenance.
4. Vutthana vasita - emerging from it.
5. Pacca vekkhana vasita - reflecting on it, retrospecting on how this state was attained.
The first three habits are to be practised before or during the state of jhana, the last two are to be practised after leaving the state. It is important for the meditator to cultivate these five habits in relation to all four jhanic states in order to strengthen the ability to attain the jhanas at will. In this way he will establish mastery over these states; he will control them - both their arising and their ceasing; they do not control him. Hence regular practice is essential - just like in the early stages of meditation.
There are four blissful states of absorption or jhanic states. The first, as we have just discussed, is a state of peace, yet thought conception and discursive thinking are still present. As soon as these have ceased, the meditator has attained the second jhana, a state of highest rapture, free of thinking and pondering. This will fade away as equanimous joy pervades the mind, the meditator is now in the third jhana. Then, as the joy fades, a state of perfect equanimity is reached - the fourth and highest jhana. After emerging from the fourth jhana, the mind is described in the texts as “serene, pure, lucid, stainless, devoid of evil, pliable, able to act, firm, and imperturbable”.
The meditator may choose to remain in these states for a matter of minutes, or hours or even days. It must, however, be remembered that all of these states are only temporary and are subject to the all-pervasive law of impermanence. There is a danger that the meditator may so enjoy abiding in the happy state of jhana that he comes to believe, mistakenly, that he has attained nibbana. No matter how high the attainments in samatha meditation, they do not last and cannot, therefore, bring permanent happiness. In order to attain this, we must practise a different form of meditation, we must practise Vipassana.
We can say that samatha means awareness, mindfulness or alertness directed towards an object, whereas vipassana means realising its true nature.
The practice of meditation as set out in the Satipatthana Sutta is a complete, self-sufficient system of meditation. It can be considered as Samatha meditation because its concentration leads to the Jhanas or blissful absorptions and induces tranquillity. It can also be considered as Vipassana meditation because we examine in the course of the practice the impermanence of phenomena, how we are subject to suffering or unsatisfactoriness; and we should be aware of the lack of any abiding or permanent essence or self in this being. The practice also develops insight into all the situations of everyday life and gives a clear vision of things as they really are.
Samatha brings the scattered mind to one-pointedness; it sharpens the mind by removing unnecessary clutter, thus enabling us to see things clearly and with penetration. Vipassana is spreading the mind in order to develop awareness of the real nature of everything - that is, its arising, its changing and its ceasing. The change from Samatha to Vipassana is brought about by a deliberate decision of the meditator. Otherwise he simply continues to enjoy the singleness of mind brought about by the practice of Samatha.