VIPASSANA BUDDHIST MEDITATION
THE SUNLUN WAY
CRITERIA FOR THE SELECTION OF
A RIGHT METHOD OF MEDITATION
“This is the only way for the purification of beings, for the over-coming of sorrow and misery, for the destruction of pain and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana.” Gotama Buddha was referring in the Maha Satipatthana Sutta, a discourse on the way to mindfulness - mindfulness of body, sensation, consciousness, and mental elements. Mindfulness is the high road but access to it is claimed by many by-ways. Various methods are offered as means to the successful establishment of mindfulness. The Maha Satipatthana Sutta itself contains many methods and exercises.
For the establishment of mindfulness of body, there are exercises in mindfulness of breathing (anapana), the postures of the body (ariyaput), the material elements (dhatu), and cemetery contemplations (sivathika).
For mindfulness of sensation, there are pleasant sensation, unpleasant sensation and neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant sensation.
For mindfulness of consciousness (citta-nupassana), there are enumerated sixteen types of consciousness (citta).
The five hindrances (nivarana), the five aggregates of clinging (khandhas), the six internal and six external sense-bases (ayatana), the seven factors of enlightenment (bojjhanga) and the four noble truths (ariya-sacca) are the mental elements on which mindfulness can be developed.
Presently in this country, Sunlun, Thathanayeiktha, Hanthawaddy, Mingun, Mohnyin, Nyanasagi, and other schools of meditation offer many modes of practice.
Mindfulness is to be established through rigorous awareness of touch and sensation, or by mental noting of the movement of the abdomen on respiration, or movement of the limbs and body in various postures, or watching whatever phenomenon arises within the body, or seeing in the seen only what is seen, and by various other means.
There arises this question: how can the prospective meditator, faced with this bewildering choice of methods, select the right one? ‘Right’ is used here to mean the undoubted power, proved in practice, which enables the meditator to attain here and now, the results set out in the preamble to the Maha Satipatthana Sutta. This article will propose a set of criteria to help the meditator select that right method.
In general, the criteria are only two: the method should be appropriate to the age and time, and should also be suitable to the man living now.
This age is not comparable to that which flowered two thousand and five hundred years ago. That was an age which bloomed but once in a myriad years. Gotama Buddha was alive then, and many a man was rewarded with the opportunity to meet in person with Gotama Buddha or one of the chief disciples. And as a result of such encounters, those men could easily and quickly gain knowledge and insight leading to Nibbana. That was an age of high endeavour and immediate liberation. That was an age of such men and women as Shin Sariputra, Maha Moggalana, Maha Kassapa, Bahiya Daruciriya, Santati and Dhammadinna - great persons who possessed quick understanding. That was an age when a man could pass unhindered through a wall or mountain, could plunge into the earth and shoot up again, could walk upon the water without parting it, or could travel through the air like bird upon the wing.
A technique suitable to that age may not be suitable to this age; a method suitable to those men may not be appropriate to the men of these times. Thus, the criteria for the method should be that it ought to be appropriate to this age and to man living now. This set of criteria is too general however, and for it to be operationally useful, it should be more specific. To arrive at the specific, consideration should first be given to the requirements which they should meet. This will entail a study of the characteristics of the age and man.
This is an age of symbols, concepts and forms, of abstraction and intellectualization. Every age is one of symbols and forms; this is because the mundane world is lived amidst symbols and forms. Symbols, verbal and non-verbal, are used for communication; forms are all around in the shape and pattern of things and in their images which are retained in men’s minds. But the exigencies of this age require a more deliberate and deeper use of these symbols. The necessity of bringing together an expanding world, the need to understand each other more, and the increasing facilities provided for communication have made symbols impress themselves deeper in men’s minds. Growing art forms, and techniques and apparatus of mass media have placed forms and shapes more and more before men today.
There is the increasing volume of exercises in conceptualization, abstraction and intellectualization brought about by the growth of both the physical and social sciences, increased literacy, and a taste for sophistication in intellectual matters. The need for regulating and administering a complex society has also increased the call on abstraction and the workings of the intellect. The peasant and worker too have grown fond of the exercise of intellectualization. Previous ages too have had their share of abstraction and intellectualization, but never before has this habit spread so far and deep into all sections of society.
This age is against any repression of physical urges or mental impulses. It is for their full use and expression because it fears that any control of these might lead to traumas and other psychological imbalances. It goes further even to the extent of stimulating these drives through advertising and hidden persuasion. And it claims that it can provide the material objects and the wherewithal for the gratification of any sense desires that it may have stimulated.
This is a sensual age which delights in its sensuality and its pride is its ability to satisfy, in an increasing degree, the demands of the senses. All this is called good living with a peculiar connotation attributed to the word ‘good’. This heightened sensuality is more extensive than at any other time in history.
The pace of living is fast and man is under pressure to run increasingly faster even if only to keep from falling behind the times. He is subjected to great strain and kept under heavy stress whether at work or at play, in the office or at home. Physical wear and tear is excessive. The load on the mind is sometimes unbearable, leading to mental disturbances. This is the age of the psychopath and the neurotic.
The noise is appalling. The sound of engines for transport or manufacture, instruments for shaping and fashioning, apparatus for amplifying the voice or music, penetrate into almost every nook, and the urge to use these noisy instruments seems to have spread to all hours of the day and night. It is probably very difficult now to get any distance away from the maddening crowd. And the most disturbing of all these noises is the sound of man’s own mental chatter, the commotion created in the mind of man by his agitated thoughts, unsatisfied desires, unappeased anger and unresolved doubts.
The man of this age wishes to escape from these artifacts of his making and from these aspects of himself. But the escape he seeks is not true liberation. He is too much attached to his things and to himself to really want that. He desires escape only into a cocoon from which he can emerge again to enjoy, although always unsatisfactorily, the material or intellectual objects of his fashioning and the idea and image of himself.
But he is lazy too. He does not wish to exert himself. He wants the objects of his desire to arrive before him by the push of a button. He demands facility and speed. All his endeavours are directed towards this end - to get what he wants in a capsule. This is a pills-swallowing world. And since he is lazy, he dislikes mental discipline. As Edward Conze has pointed out, modern individualism, the pretences of democracy, and the current methods of education have combined to produce a deep-rooted dislike of mental discipline. This shows in itself an aversion to memorize the salient points of theory which are required by various meditations, not to mention the numerical lists which often are the very backbone of some of the training.
Modern man does not care too much for the total retirement of a monastic life in which the meditative exercises can be pursued regularly without intermission. He has many worldly duties to perform, and thus would prefer a method which would enable him to carry it out in conjunction with those other duties. Also, the call of those duties does not leave him with much time for the practice of meditation. He has too much to do and is unable to get away often for long spells of leave from his profession. Each day he can provide perhaps only an hour at the most. Modern man is chronically short of time.
His chief characteristic is his lack of a quick intuition. Shin Sariputra and Bahiya Daruciriya were men of quick intuition who attained insight on hearing the utterance of a verse of dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha. Modern man, on the other hand, has to cultivate his mental powers again and again, many many times, before he can reach that stage when he is ready for the flash of insight. Modern man is of sluggish intuition.
These are the characteristics of the age and the man. Any method of meditation should be able to accommodate these characteristics if it is to be appropriate to the age and to lead modern man to mindfulness and insight. It should enable him to overcome his weaknesses, strengthen his purposes, sublimate his wrong urges, and develop and mobilize his inherent resources for the winning of magga-nana (Path knowledge for enlightenment). Only such a method may be called right, for only such a method will put man on the right path and finally convey him to complete liberation. Since this is so, what should be the specific characteristics of this right method?
Insight (vipassana) is the elimination of concepts (pannati) to penetrate to the real, the absolute truth (paramattha) for the winning of knowledge (panna). Therefore, the characteristic of the right chief method should be its power to gain immediate and direct access to the truth in the highest ultimate sense, as contrasted with the conventional truth. Without this power of immediate penetration to the real, a man might end up wandering about the surface realm of form, piling concept upon concept, while ostensibly pointing to the real.
For instance, when touch occurs, he should be able to grasp the bare fact of touch without any need for formulating the concept, “touch, touch”. He should be aware of the precise moment of the occurrence of touch-sensation, and his mindfulness should be contemporaneous with it. These three events should happen simultaneously - touch, awareness, mindfulness.
Reality is to be grasped in the actual moment of occurrence. If mindfulness cannot be awakened to take place simultaneously with the moment of occurrence because of any interference whatsoever, then, reality would have died away, subsided in the interim, and any consciousness of that past event would be only the result of a glancing back at it, an after-thought.
If the bare fact of touch is not grasped mindfully in the precise moment of happening, because the concept - “touch, touch” has to be formed, however swiftly, then during that moment of conceptualization, the touch-event would have occurred and ended. Whatever else that is grasped later can be only a memory, a mentally created image of the touch, a replica of the real. The first required characteristic of the method then, would be its power to grasp bare reality as it is, in the precise present moment, without disturbing it, without conceptualizing it.
The method should be able to overcome wholly, the attraction of the sensual objects and the force of the urge for sense gratification. This is necessary if it is to draw the attention of the meditator completely away from the sensual objects and fix it on the object of mindfulness; this is also to cleanse the mind thoroughly of any lingering sensuality.
Any division of the direction of attention between a sensual object and the object of mindfulness would result in the creation of a disturbance, an interruption, the passing of the present moment, and consequent loss of power to get to the real. A mind with even the least tinge of sensuality would find that the sensuality keeps coming in between it and the real, like a glove between the hand and a rose petal. The real can never be grasped unless there is a full commitment to it. Since the force of attraction and the power of the sensual urge are great, the method calls for a powerful thrust. This may be compared to the thrust of a booster engine which carries a rocket beyond the point of escape from the gravitational pull of the earth. In other words, it should be an intense method.
It should not impose a nervous strain upon the meditator. During the course of practice, psychological turbulences may occur. The method should be able to quieten, curb, eliminate them, or if they are to be worked out and consumed, the working out should take place during the period of meditation without undue adverse effect upon the process, and without any bodily or mental harm to the meditator.
It should be a method which does not disqualify the sick, the feeble and the maimed. It should enable them to practise it as completely and perfectly as it is practised by the well, the strong and the able-bodied. The right method should lead to mental and physical health, not neurosis and illness; it should lead to clear knowledge, not imbalance. It should be able to accomplish this because of the perfect establishment of curative mindfulness and complete understanding to the health-giving real.
The method should be able to raise high the threshold which noise must pass over to distract the meditator. It should enable him to practise in the normal noise of the home, or even while a sound truck goes blaring down the street. He effects this not by the practice of a method which creates a sound noisier than the original distractive sound. True, it is possible for a method which requires strong, hard respiration to protect him in an envelope of sound of his own breathing, but its efficacy could be limited by sounds which are louder than the noise of breathing. Moreover, this protection by a wall of sound should not be the purpose though it might well be an incidental effect. Strong respiration should be called forth, primarily to awaken energetic and intensive application of mindfulness. The object of meditation should be capable of fully absorbing the attention of the meditator so that no noise can distract him, and the method should quickly develop the concentrative power of the mind. Only in this manner can noise be overcome.
To overcome the laziness of modern man, a right method of meditation should be self-energizing. The very practice should generate earnestness in whoever begins to undertake it, so that ardour is developed continually and increasingly till the moment comes when original laziness is eliminated. It should produce rapid and definite progress so that his interest is aroused and he feels a keen desire to persevere in the practice. It should be so absorbing and generative of zeal that the taking of the first few steps will create the momentum to carry him through to the end.
An appropriate method for modern man need not require the prior memorizing of a series of formulae or a numerical list of items or the mastery of an elaborate theory. It need not call for book learning and academic qualification. Discursive knowledge of scriptural texts and philosophies may well aid the meditator after the event of meditation, when he wishes to conceptualize the knowledge of the real he has won in the course of meditation. But coming before the event, such theoretical studies tend to get in the way of the meditator who has to throw aside concepts and discursive conventional knowledge to get through to the real. He need not be required to perform intellectual calisthenics. If modern man were asked to meet these theological and academic qualifications, few, except scholastics and theoreticians, would be qualified to meditate. Modern man is educated in his profession but not in these subjects.
Between a method which is intensive and productive of quick results, and another which is relaxed and slow to bear fruit, the former would be more suited to modern man who has not much time to spare for meditation. A man may be able to spare a week or a month perhaps, away from his profession. If ardour is not stirred up quickly, nor mindfulness developed, and the real not seen, he might well find at the end of his given period, that irrevocable progress has not been made and the momentum produced by him would be lost while he attends to his worldly duties. The next time he can spare another week or month, he might have to generate the required powers afresh, with these to be lost again without real transformation of the man. But if he strives earnestly because the method is intensive, then he can win within that period, that which he has set out to win, or can, at a minimum, establish a way of approach so that in the next period, his progress is facilitated and the transformation takes place.
The method would be preferable if it could ordinarily be practised in conjunction with the performance of other duties. But this should be made clear. In a sense, no method of meditation leading to insight is compatible with the worldly life. The purpose of the practice is to seek liberation from the rounds of rebirth and to loosen the hold upon life. Any act which strengthens that grasp is detrimental to the practice. If a man seeks to continue to perform his worldly duties as well as to be liberated, there will be conflict of purposes and the acts directed towards the realization of one goal will stultify those acts directed towards the winning of the other goal. But this does not mean that a man should not, could not, or would not continue to perform those worldly duties, and perform them well, until he is liberated.
He is a worldling trying to enter the ‘stream’: he will continue to be in the lay world, living the life of a worldling until he becomes a ‘stream-winner’ upon reaching the first stage. Even the life and practice leading to sakadagami, the second stage, are compatible with the performance of worldly duties. It is only when he has attained the third stage, the anagami, does he abandon the common world.
Thus, a method which employs the sense of touch could be practised along with other duties. At no moment of the day or night will a man’s body not be in touch with an object. If he is sitting, his body will touch the chair. If he is lying, his head will touch the pillow. If he is working, his hands will touch the tools. If he can be mindful of touch of body against chair, of head against pillow, or of tool against hand, he will be guarding his mind and developing somewhat his power of concentration (samadhi) to find out the real. This relaxed practice however, can only be a supplement to the more intensive primary practice which he undertakes in order to break through the bonds of rebirth.
Modern man with his sluggish intuition requires initially a crude object of meditation. Of the four objects, body, sensation, consciousness, and mental elements, the former two - body and sensation - are crude, while the latter two are refined and subtle. A man with sluggish intuition should attempt to develop his concentrative power and mindfulness on those two crude objects. Later, and consequentially as his mind becomes cleansed, firm and serviceable, he will be able to grasp consciousness and mental elements as they arise in accord with their own nature during the course of meditation. Still, every time he wishes to practise mindfulness of consciousness and mental elements, he will have to pass through the stations of touch and sensation till his mind is thoroughly cleansed, made firm and serviceable. Only as an anagami perhaps, he may not need to do this.
A right method of meditation should not be in confusion between means and ends, or between cause and effect. The means here are ‘mindfulness’, and the ends is to attain ‘insight’. The cause and effect are the karmic deeds and their resultant outcome (consequences). For instance, in order to see in the seen only what is seen, a man should not be asked just to gaze upon the object and force or persuade himself to see in it only the seen; this is the way of auto-suggestion. He should be asked to perform that causative act - the ‘mindfulness’ which will give effect to ‘seeing in the seen only what is seen’; that is ‘taking it as it is’ without reacting to what he has seen. He should be made to work from cause to effect, here meaning - to work on mindfulness to produce insight. If he should work upon the undesirable effect - like working on his reactions or emotions of desire, anger or delusion, the result will be a shifting away from the intended aim, the insight, to that of another effect which will in turn become a cause, a force, (by perpetuating successive emotions) for rounds of rebirth, samsara. This is slipping away from the present to an unwanted, unprofitable future and the further turning of the wheel of rebirth.
Finally, a right method of meditation should lead to true liberation and not just escape. There are many ways of gaining psychological escape, ways which may be therapeutic or neurotic; these take place on the mundane level of living without any development of the mind. There are also ways of escape offered by methods which result in tranquility; these are the ways of jhana, the various states of mental absorption through meditation. The dross of sensuality is removed, anger is pacified, agitation is stilled, the mind quietened, and joy and bliss realized. There is development of the mind, but the results are temporal and temporary. They take place within the thirty-one worlds* and the reward is consumed when the force of the original causative act is spent. True liberation is won only through knowledge of the real, attained in the moment of supramundane enlightenment (magga nana). Only true liberation is both transcendental and permanent.
Summing up, the following characteristics should be looked for in choosing a right method of meditation:
- Penetrating immediately and directly to the real;
- Overcoming the urge for sense gratification;
- Promoting bodily and mental health;
- Raising the threshold for noise;
- Not requiring extensive discursive knowledge;
- Productive of quick results;
- Capable of being practised in conjunction with other duties;
- Suitable for the sluggish intuition;
- Distinguishing between means and ends; and
- Leading to true liberation.