Background material on vipassana meditation
From Asokananda`s book, "The Yoga of Mindfullness":
VIPASSANA—THE TRAINING OF MINDFULNESS
You are going out of your house. Nobody is at home. You lock the door. In your living room a tape recorder is running. The telephone rings. The ringing is recorded on the tape. Somebody is ringing the door bell. That also will be registered by the tape recorder. Someone is in front of the door and shouts your name. The tape recorder registers the shouting. It registers, and registers, and registers... But the tape recorder doesn`t react. It doesn`t answer the phone call. It doesn`t open the door. And, what is even more important, the tape recorder doesn`t judge whether the caller in front of your door is a friend or somebody whom you rather wouldn`t welcome. The tape recorder only states the simple fact of telephone ringing, door bell ringing, shouting, etc.
This in a simple form is the principle of Vipassana, which the Buddha in his sermon on mindfulness, said is the only path to realization. It is the principle of bare observation.
"The Buddha`s teaching, particularly his way of `meditation`, aims at producing a state of perfect mental health, equilibrium and tranquillity. It is unfortunate that hardly any other section of the Buddha`s teaching is so much misunderstood as `meditation`, both by Buddhists and non-Buddhists. The moment the word `meditation` is mentioned, one thinks of an escape from the daily activities of life; assuming a particular posture, like a statue in some cave or cell in a monastery, in some remote place cut off from society; and musing on, or being absorbed in, some kind of mystic or mysterious thought or trance. True Buddhist `meditation` does not mean this kind of escape at all. The Buddha`s teaching on this subject was so wrongly, or so little understood, that in later times the way of `meditation` deteriorated and degenerated into a kind of ritual or ceremony almost technical in its routine."
The kind of meditation the Buddha talks about is a meditation for daily life. It`s a training of mindfulness encompassing all bodily and mental processes in all situations of everyday life. The Buddha enumerates four foundations of mindfulness that should be cultivated:
• mindfulness of the body in all postures and functions (kayanupassand)
• mindfulness of feelings (vedananupassand).
• mindfulness of mental states (cittanupassand).
• mindfulness of mental contents (dhammanupassand).
Kayanupassand includes the observation of breathing (dndpand-sati), and also the body postures in walking, sitting, standing or lying down, as well as activities such as eating and drinking, looking, speaking, bending, stretching and many more.
Vedananupassana is the clear observation of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral sense impressions or feelings. As feelings are a root cause for craving and grasping, which are two important fetters binding us to the chain of conflict, this is a decisive aspect of the path to realization.
Cittanupassana is the observation of states of mind, registering the mind in a concentrated or an unconcentrated state, full of hatred or love, deluded or clear.
Dhammanupassand deals with mental contents.
The Buddha mentions in his sermon a number of aspects to be aware of, including the factors of enlightenment (Bojjhanga) and the five mental hindrances to meditation practice (Nivarana).
The hindrances I`m going to explain in more detail, as they become regular companions of every meditator. They either appear one by one or in a kind of multiple-hindrance attack. These five hindrances are:
1. Sense desire
You`ve just started with your meditation training. Suddenly a bakery shop appears in front of your mental eyes. Or a beautiful sandy beach, or you think about your sex partner, and so on. Anything goes... And suddenly the inevitable question comes up, what the hell are you doing here? You could be in the bakery shop now eating tasty apple pie. Or you could be swimming in the sea, or making love with your friend... There are no limits for desire and greed, which sometimes becomes so strong and overwhelming that you can`t even think about practicing bare observation.
2. Hatred, anger, aggression, negative feelings
Feelings of hatred and anger arise, aggressiveness against yourself or other people or against certain unpleasant situations.
3. Sloth and torpor
This is a specific kind of meditation weariness. Even when you actually know that you are fit and awake, you feel tired and weary, the mind is clouded.
You`ve just retreated to start your meditation and suddenly there is this urge for action. You have to make a phone call to Aunt Elisabeth now! You should have made the call weeks ago, but now is exactly the right time for it. A letter has to be written, immediately, because otherwise you might forget again... The mind presents you 1001 reasons for anything being more important than your meditation.
5. Sceptical doubt
Sceptical doubt comes as a result of your encounters with the first four hindrances. Why am I doing this? Isn`t it all nonsense?
The five hindrances block any clear understanding, any progress on the path to realization. As they are unavoidable companions, it is important to know them. Because only the clear recognition of their arising will break their power.
Already it might have become clear that Vipassana meditation is not limited to sitting meditation, but extends to all daily life situations. It is nothing less than the application of mindfulness from one moment to the next. And that is as true for washing the dishes as for taking a walk, eating, driving a car or discussions. As it is not easy to be mindful in each and every moment, most people need periods of retreat to train mindfulness.
To avoid confusion I should mention that there are two mainstreams of meditation training. One of them, practiced by the Buddha in the first years after he had left his family and still taught nowadays in the Hindu tradition, is the training of concentration (Samatha meditation). Various techniques are used to concentrate the mind on one point to achieve oneness with the meditation object (cittekaggata). The object of meditation may be a mandala, one of the elements like fire, water, earth or air; one may meditate on a specific topic, or watch the breath as an object of meditation on one-pointedness. Forty different objects for concentration are mentioned in the ancient scriptures. The whole collection is thoroughly explained in the Visuddhi Magga. These techniques may lead to deep states of absorption, to intensive mystical experiences and to the development of psychic powers, resulting in unbelievable abilities, such as levitation, walking on water and fire, getting buried alive for days, and more. But all these psychic powers, experiences and states of absorpuon are nothing more than intensified or altered states of consciousness, which must not be mistaken for realization of reality and truth. They do not provide an answer to the Buddha`s question of how to overcome Dukkha, the conflict of duality, on which the Buddha`s search was focused. Techniques of meditation to train concentration were already practiced in pre-Buddhist times. The Buddha himself was familiar with these practices and reached states of deep absorpuon as well as attaining mastery of psychic powers. Even though the Buddha was not satisfied with these techniques and started a new chapter of meditation with Vipassana, there is no contradiction between the classic techniques of concentration meditation and the moment-to-moment awareness of Vipassana. On the contrary, for the practice of Vipassana, concentration is essential, although not necessarily deep states of absorption. Both mainstreams of meditation therefore may be practiced at the same time. For someone starting Vipassana practice, previous experience with Samatha is definitely helpful. It`s not absolutely necessary though, as the most common techniques of Vipassana taught nowadays include a training in basic concentration, aiming at what is called `access-concentration`. The practice of Hatha-Yoga and Pranayama also strengthens concentration. One more reason to combine Buddhist meditation training with physical Yoga exercises.
Vipassana for today
Mindfulness in all daily life situations is the key to realization. That sounds good and easy enough, but whoever observes carefully how we actually behave in daily life soon finds out that living mindfully is easier said than done. Let`s take some simple examples. While we are having our meals, how often are we really fully with the eating? Without our thoughts wandering back to events of the past and without making plans for the future? How often do we forget ourselves in talk about this and that and, before we even realize it, the plate is empty and our attention was everywhere but not with the food? The same is true for most of our activities, from taking a walk to washing the dishes. While taking a walk, when are we really fully with the walking? When are we really there when washing the dishes? The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh once said that there are two ways of washing the dishes. One is to wash the dishes to get them clean. The other is to wash the dishes to wash the dishes. In the second method, all our attention is with what we are doing, we get fully absorbed and become one with the activity. That is action in the spirit of Vipassana. If we wash the dishes only to get them clean, the mind might be busy with plenty of other things and we are only fulfilling a possibly annoying duty.
To train to be able to live mindfully, it is advisable to go for periods of intensive retreat from time to time and to set aside some time for daily practice. Otherwise it is difficult to resist the power of the madness surrounding us.A modern Vipassana training technique has been developed and taught from the beginning of this century. The method is based on the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha`s sermon on the four foundations of mindfulness which I have mentioned earlier. It includes all the aspects dealt with in the sermon. Other techniques of Vipassana meditation based on the Satipatthdna Sutta, are nowadays taught as well, partly using the four foundations of mindfulness,
partly using only sections of it. I want to introduce here the main ideas of the method I practice myself. Developed by the Burmese monk U Narada jvfahathera, who died in 1955, this technique has been disseminated to all countries of Theravada Buddhism and to the West by Mahasi Sayadaw and is now commonly known as `the Burmese mindfulness training in the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition`. As the name of Mahasi Sayadaw is now closely linked with it, I will also just call it `the Mahasi Sayadaw technique`. All aspects of the Satipatthdna Sutta are included and all bodily and mental processes are part of the training. It is not difficult to combine this practice with Hatha-Yoga and Pranayama. The observation of processes in body and mind can easily be applied to the postures and movements of Yoga.
2.1. `The Mahasi Sayadaw Technique`, an intensive training in Vipassana
It is impossible to provide in a book detailed instruction and advice for intensive training in Vipassana. Personal instruction by an experienced teacher is irreplaceable. I therefore recommend going on a—possibly long—retreat in one of the numerous Vipassana centres in Asia or in the West. I sometimes offer retreats for small groups, generally from ten days to three months.
For an intensive training I recommend one month or even better two or three months. While taking part in a strict course like this, the meditator subjects himself to certain rules, which enable him or her a deeper penetration into experiences with processes of body and mind. `Noble Silence` has to be observed, a strict ban on any kind of talk or communication during the whole course, only interrupted by interviews with the meditation teacher. Neither reading or writing are allowed, nor any kind of work, with the exception of only the most essential daily activities of hygiene. Also banned are watching TV or listening to the radio or walkman. The idea is to curb the input of new sense impressions to a minimum to avoid any mental and bodily distraction.
In most meditation centres, the participants observe the eight training rules to avoid tension (atthanga-sila), which the Buddha recommended to his followers for periods of retreat. The rules are:
1. I undertake the training rule, not to kill or harm any sentient being.
2. I undertake the training rule, not to take anything which is not given to me.
3. I undertake the training rule, to refrain from sexual contact.
4. I undertake the training rule, not to harm anybody with words (which includes no telling lies, no slandering, no aggressive talk, etc.).
5. I undertake the training rule, not to cloud my mind with alcoholic drinks (this is nowadays generally interpreted to cover all substances that cloud the mind, not only alcohol).
6. I undertake the training rule, not to eat at an improper time. (This means that no solid food will be taken from 12.00 noon until the following morning. Either breakfast and lunch are served or only one meal at around 10.00 a.m.; after that only drinks are permitted).
7. I undertake the training rule, to abstain from dancing, singing and making music. I also abstain from wearing ornaments and using perfumes and cosmetics.
8. I undertake the training rule, not to use soft, comfortable beds and seats.
The daily-routine is marked by alternating periods of sitting and walking-meditation, only interrupted by the meals, a little time for personal hygiene and normally about three to four hours of sleep.
To intensify the ability for moment-to-moment observation, `slow motion`. is used as a powerful tool. The participants slow down the pace of all their movements to a minimum, while walking, eating, drinking, as well as while taking a shower or washing clothes. This makes it easier to observe all the details of motions.
It might be rather strange for an outsider to observe a Vipassana meditation centre. People walking around like `zombies`, the powerful silence of the -place, all of which creates a picture of an institution resembling a strange `mental hospital`. It takes time to find one`s place in such a frame, to become fully absorbed in the training. That`s why, as already mentioned, it is so important to have plenty of time, ideally two to three months for a beginner`s training, but a minimum of ten to fourteen days.
For someone practicing daily at home for an hour of so, shorter periods of retreat later on are useful.
The image of the Buddha in meditation pose with crossed legs has made its imprint on the minds of many people in the West.
A sitting position in any variation of the lotus-seat or in the `tailor`s seat` is an advantage for sitting meditation. To sit on the floor gives you a more stable and actually more comfortable posture; it is easier to keep the back straight. Sitting on a chair instead throws up a number of problems. Pain in the lower back is more frequent, also tension in the shoulders. The body tends to bend forward too much, leading to even more tension. Most Asians, so far not spoiled by sitting on chairs frequently, generally find it easy to sit on the floor. On the other hand, this may pose an insurmountable problem for a beginner from the West. In that case, it is better to use a chair for Vipassana training in the beginning, despite the disadvantages mentioned.
For Samatha meditation, the training of one-pointed concentration, a stable sitting posture on the floor should be assumed from the beginning, as otherwise there would be too many distractions. No change of posture during the training period is permitted either; this isn`t much of a problem in Vipassana, as long as the change is performed in a mindful way.
If you combine your meditation practice with Yoga exercises, however, you will find your body opening up and becoming more loose in a couple of months. Sitting cross-legged in the `tailor`s seat` first and later in more difficult postures won`t be out of reach then. The different sitting postures suitable for meditation will be explained in detail in the practical part of this book.
The time span for one training unit is normally one hour. In an intensive retreat one hour of sitting alternates with one hour of walking.
The observation of the rising and falling of the abdomen
The starting and orientation point for sitting meditation is the observation of the rising and falling of the abdomen. The abdomen is rising on the in-breath, falling on the out-breath. As this is a gross and continuous movement, it is an ideal object for meditation. One should avoid repeating the words `rising` and `falling` verbally or mentally considering them as words. It is important instead to actually observe the event of `rising` and `falling` and to make a mental note of it, whenever the movement occurs. However, in contrast to the Pranayama exercises explained in the practical part of this book, no control or influence on the breathing process is permitted. So neither try to consciously breathe very deep nor particularly flat, but just look at the breathing as it is.
The labelling of the `rising` and `falling` of the abdomen is a helpful tool to strengthen concentration and mindfulness. This necessary basic `access-concentration` is a precondition for a clear noting of all bodily and mental processes and of the flow of events in daily life.
The observation of all bodily and mental processes
As we don`t use the observation of the rising and falling of the abdomen as an exercise for one-pointed concentration (Samatha) but only as a starting and orientation point, the field for observation is extended to all sense impressions. "Hearing" is labelled as "hearing", "smelling" as `smelling", "tasting" as "tasting", "seeing" as "seeing", "feeling" as "feeling" and "thinking" as "thinking". The labelling is the tool to recognize the arising and passing away of the processes of body and mind, without working with the sense impressions, without interfering, without judging them with the categories of conditioned thinking. Only the bare fact of the perceived sense impression is noted. No comparisons are made with experiences of the past. They are not used as food for planning the future. No judgement or categorisation is applied.
Whenever the mind is blank or certain sense impressions are too dominant to let go just by labelling, we go back to the observation of the rising and falling of the abdomen. In intensive training we may reach levels of subconsciousness which have been suppressed and may now find an outlet for release. This is an extraordinary chance to observe these psychic tensions and to let them go. But the cleansing process of the subconsciousness may take time. Certain thoughts and feelings appear again and again like a powerful haunting force. This may create the impression that it is impossible after all to let go. That impression is wrong. In the same way as a begging dog comes back to the table again and again to try his luck, the force of our past karmas is persistently strong. You feed the dog and he comes back again. You start thinking the thoughts, using the memories as manure, new stories are made up and the letting go is going to get tough. But if you don`t give in to the dog`s repeated attempts, he`ll stop begging after a while, realizing the futility. If you carefully and mindfully observe the processes coming from your sub-consciousness without interfering and feeding them, they finally lose their power and get released.
In very much the same way, this mindfulness in regard to processes of body and mind while training in the sitting posture can be practiced with all other body postures and activities. While under no circumstances should you change your sitting posture in concentration meditation, the emphasis in Vipassana is on mindful observation. When you experience pain, then you label it as `pain`. If pain becomes unbearable and there is an urge and the intention to change the posture, then the `intention to change` is labelled. Then you observe all the necessary steps to change the posture. That doesn`t mean that we should give in to the slightest discomfort. The observation of pain can be quite revealing and teach us a lot. Often we seem to experience pain as solid and substantial. But in our Vipassana practice, we suddenly realize that pain is more like the movement of waves. This is due to the way the mind works. The mind is only able to perceive one sense impression after the other. It is impossible to hear or smell and feel pain simultaneously, but one perception follows the other. In daily life, this process of perception happens extremely fast. So we are not conscious about the way of functioning of the mind. By observing pain carefully in our Vipassana training, we find that it will be replaced by other sense impressions such as `hearing` or `smelling`. In that process, pain dissolves and reappears as a new sense impression later on.
The observation of processes is not restricted to sitting meditation or changing the sitting posture. Observation starts with waking up in the morning, continues with getting up and involves all daily activities from dressing, opening and closing of windows and doors to eating and drinking.
As an example I would like to quote the instructions for eating (with the fingers `Indian style`) by Mahasi Sayadaw:
`You must attend to the contemplation of every detail in the action of
eating: When you look at the food, looking, seeing. When you arrange the food, arranging. When you bring the food to mouth, bringing. When you bend the neck forward, bending. When the food touches the mouth, toughing. When placing the food in the mouth, placing. When the mouth closes, closing. , When withdrawing the hand, withdrawing. Should the hand touch the plate, touching. When straightening the neck, straightening. When in the act of chewing, chewing. When you are aware of the taste, knowing. When swallowing the food, swallowing. While swallowing, should the food be felt touching the sides of the gullet,
Perform contemplation in this manner each time you partake of a morsel of food until you finish the meal. In the beginning of the practice there will be many omissions. Never mind. Do not waver in your effort. You will make fewer omissions if you persist in your practice. When you reach an advanced stage of the practice, you will also be able to notice more details than those mentioned here`.
In addition to the mindfulness training in sitting posture observing the rising and falling of the abdomen, a second pillar for the development of mindfulness in the Mahasi Sayadaw technique is training in walking.
The basic exercise is the observation of the lifting and dropping of the feet. Take care not to look and to observe with your eyes but be sure to make a clear mental note of the walking process. Again ` walking` is not a meditation object for one-pointedness; whenever other sense impressions are dominant you stop and label them in the way already explained. Only when your concentration is fully with the walking process, you continue walking.
On an advanced level you may extend your observation to more aspects of the walking process and, for example, note the intention to walk, touching the ground and many more. Walking meditation is an effective technique. Walking meditation made access to Vipassana a lot easier for me, as I initially had enormous problems with sitting. So I replaced sitting periods with walking periods during intensive retreats, sometimes ending up with 12 to 14 hours of walking. I`m sure quite a number of Vipassana yogis from the West will find themselves in a similar situation.
The role of the Vipassana teacher
The meditation techniques introduced here are generally without any danger for the meditator. The process of opening up is slow. Each and every step on the path is teaching you anew and your own practice becomes your teacher. Nevertheless, it is important to seek the guidance of an experienced Vipassana teacher now and then to clarify doubts and misunderstandings and to get instruction in regard to your practice. The Vipassana teacher is no guru who shows the student the way. He is more like an encyclopedia that the student uses to look for answers to questions. Anything that might influence the student or point him or her in a certain direction will be avoided. The way of mindfulness is a path that you have to follow yourself and where you have to progress from experience to experience. The experiences or opinions of others, even those of your teacher, would only create obstacles. That`s why the Vipassana teacher tries to be as distant and impersonal as possible.
Vipassana and daily life
An intensive training of mindfulness is important, but the actual test is daily life. It is helpful to retreat to a meditation centre now and then, as well as to pursue a daily practice of an hour or two, which may consist of an hour of sitting meditation and an hour of Yoga each; otherwise, it might be difficult to maintain a high level of mindfulness. But it would be a misunderstanding to mistake the training with the `competition`. The `competition` is daily life, our attitude toward daily life, and the mindfulness we are able to apply in daily life situations. Vipassana is not a technique that aims at providing us with out-of-the-world abilities; it doesn`t teach us how to fly or how to walk on water. Vipassana teaches us patience and equanimity; it gives us the chance to look behind the curtain of hatred, greed, envy, jealousy, anger. Vipassana teaches us to understand. And Vipassana teaches us to smile—and to let go.
Vipassana helps us to renounce. Not to renounce the world, but to renounce our attachment to it.
`Renunciation must be complete. It must be a leaving behind of everything. The giving up of material things is easy enough, but that giving-up is not even essential. It is not the surrender of books which is renunciation, but the abandonment of the doctrines contained therein. As long as there is attachment to any particular doctrine or system, or school, a free going forth is impossible. It is not the leaving behind of friends and family, but it is the breaking of the bonds of attachment, which is necessary. As long as one is caught within the limitations and restrictions of society, association or family, they form a burden which prevents real progress. But if one were free from their fettering influences, the going-forth has taken place already. To leave home and to bind oneself with restrictions in a homeless life is to exchange one prison for another. Any mode of living may become a prison, if one considers that mode as a means of salvation, or deliverance. Freedom does not exist in methods, for methods are binding, however much support one may find in them`.
To live each and every moment of life fully is the art Vipassana enables us to learn. To be fully there when we get up in the morning, when we play with the children, have our meal or wash the dishes. There is no situation in life that is excluded, no place where this wouldn`t be possible.
Some help on the path of mindfulness
Besides the daily practice of Vipassana meditation and mindful Yoga, there are some other tools to help us proceed on the path.
I have mentioned already the eight training rules to avoid tension, which have to be observed in most monasteries and meditation centres. For daily life, the Buddha recommends observing the first five of them, with the third rule changed. Instead of a celibate life you refrain from harming anybody with your sexual behaviour, neither causing physical nor psychic harm.
Whenever the five hindrances of meditation become too strong and your concentration suffers from sense desire, sloth and torpor or restlessness, a simple counting game may be effective: Continue to observe the abdomen. When breathing in count `one`.
When breathing out, count `two`. In-breath `three`. Out-breath `four`. Count to `ten`. Should you find yourself counting 18 or 26 already or anything else, please don`t get angry with yourself. Also keep calm when you suddenly don`t remember whether you have just been counting `five` or already `nine`. Just go back to the beginning and start again. After some time you will find that you manage more and more sets of `ten` without difficulty.
You will soon feel a remarkable difference in your ability to concentrate in everyday life.
Use this technique now and then whenever you think you need a boost in concentration. Ten or fifteen minutes might sometimes be sufficient, but there is no harm in practicing for a full hour either.
If you find that hatred and anger play a dominant role, the cultivation of `metta` should be included in your practice.
`Metta` is all-embracing understanding, all-embracing acceptance and love for oneself and the whole of creation. I personally had great experiences with the recitation of the Tibetan manlra `Om Mani Padme Hum`. The mantra symbolises cosmic unity.6 (`The shining light of the jewel in the midst of the lotus flower is united with the cosmic sound.`)
The silent or spoken or chanted repetition of the mantra opens the heart and lets hatred and anger fade.
The veil of delusion is lifted and the power of observation increases.
`Watch a flash of lightning. If you watch it at the moment lightning strikes, you will see it for yourself. If you are imagining in your mind as to how lightning strikes before or after the event, you may not be regarded as having seen the flash of lightning. So try to know things for yourself by actual observation of things as they happen`.