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Being, Doing, And The Active Art of Meditating

Those of you who follow this blog know that I am at odds with many of the teachings of what is commonly called “Vipassana meditation.” I have been pleased in recent years to discover that I am not alone. Two of the most prominent teachers in the nominally Theravadan tradition are firmly on my side. Or rather, to be more precise, I stumbled across understandings about what the Buddha taught that they know and can articulate far better than I.

Thursday a week ago at the Albuquerque Vipassana Sangha meeting I got to revisit these issues anew. In the Dhamma talk for the evening several common teachings from the “Vipassana community” stood out. They will sound familiar to anyone who practices what is commonly called “insight meditation.”

  1. When meditating, just be with whatever arises.
  2. Meditation is not about “creating mind states.”
  3. You just need enough concentration to cultivate wisdom.

(These last two statements are an indirect way of criticizing jhāna practice.)

Because I like to be careful about how I characterize the Buddha’s teachings, I spent some time this afternoon doing some more detailed research on statements like these, as well as looking into the precise meaning of the word “mindfulness” (sati in Pali), and the topics “bare attention”, and “choice-less awareness.” (You will also hear related phrases such as “non-reactive awareness” or “non-reactive attention.”)

What has come to be known as “Vipassana meditation” has no basis in the Buddha’s teachings. The word “vipassana” (insight) in the canonical literature is a quality of the mind. It is usually used in conjunction with the word “samatha” (serenity). “Samatha” and “vipassana” are two qualities of the mind that are developed together:

“Again, a bhikkhu[i] develops serenity and insight in conjunction. As he is developing serenity and insight in conjunction, the path is generated. He pursues this path, develops it, and cultivates it. As he is pursuing, developing, and cultivating this path, the fetters are abandoned and the underlying tendencies are uprooted.” [AN[ii] 4.170]

Further – and this is my own understanding – samatha and vipassana develop with concentration – samadhi – as their basis.

But perhaps more importantly, this notion of non-reactivity and non-intervention and non-doing, indicates a neutrality that is absent from the Buddha’s teachings. Meditation is, in fact, specifically about developing and cultivating the mind. The Pali word for meditation – bhavana – means “to develop” or “to cultivate.” This is an active process, not a passive one.

Thus, meditation is about developing a mind of wholesome mind states, and eliminating unwholesome mind states:

“Again, Udāyin, I have proclaimed to my disciples the way to develop the four right kinds of striving. Here a bhikkhu awakens zeal for the non-arising of unarisen evil unwholesome states, and he makes effort, arouses energy, exerts his mind, and strives. He awakens zeal for the abandoning of arisen evil unwholesome states…He awakens zeal for the arising of unarisen wholesome states…He awakens zeal for the continuance, non-disappearance, strengthening, increase, and fulfillment by development of arisen wholesome states, and he makes effort, arouses energy, exerts his mind, and strives. And thereby many disciples of mine abide having reached the consummation and perfection of direct knowledge.” [MN [iii]77.16]

There is also, then, the issue of the word “mindfulness.”

The word “mindfulness” in Pali is sati. There are numerous – and I would say, detailed and confusing – discussions of the word. The literal meaning of sati is to “remember” or “recollect”.

I am going to give my own interpretation of what I have read, based mainly on what Thaniisaro Bhikkhu and Bhikku Bodhi have written. I believe that these are two very reputable sources. Any errors in interpretation are my own.

Sati in the context of meditation can literally be taken to mean “keeping an object in mind.” This usually means the breath, or the breath in conjunction with one of the four foundations of mindfulness (the body, sensations, mind objects, and mental phenomena).

But sati, keeping in mind the context of memory or recollection, also implies keeping an object in mind in the context of remembering. OK, so remembering what? I think this can be understood in two aspects.

The first aspect is that of the previous 6 factors of the noble eightfold path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, and right effort. While the noble eightfold path is usually taught as being non-linear – and this is not incorrect – they also have a linear way of being understood. (The Buddha said that right concentration – the eight path factor – arises with the other path factors as a foundation.) Thus, when meditating, mindfulness implies keeping the other path factors – especially the ones that come before and support right mindfulness – in mind.

The other way of understanding sati as remembering is from one’s own past experience. We all have some wisdom – discernment – and keeping our own previous experience and what we have learned in mind also supports the rich experience know as “right mindfulness.”

Thus “mindfulness” is “keeping an object in mind”, with the supporting foundation of the first 6 path factors (which can be abbreviated to just three factors: right view, right intention, and virtue), as well as our own personal experience, and particularly what we have learned from that experience, our wisdom.

Bhikkhu Bodhi, in a letter to B. Allan Wallace in 2006, put it this way:

“I understand your exasperation with the tendency, in the “neo-Vipassana movement,” to adopt (as you put it) “a kind of ethical neutrality that acknowledges no significant difference between wholesome and unwholesome mental states and rejects any attempt to favor one kind of mental process over another.” I agree this is quite foreign to the whole tenor of the Buddha’s teaching. In fact, I doubt very much that there is such a thing as “bare attention” in the sense of mindfulness completely devoid of ethical evaluation and purposive direction. In the actual development of right mindfulness, as I understand it, sammāsati must always be guided in right view, steered by right intention, grounded in the three ethical factors, and cultivated in conjunction with sammāvāyāma, right effort; right effort necessarily presupposes the distinction of mental states into the unwholesome and the wholesome.

I recall that when Ven. Nyanaponika[iv] would read statements about “bare attention” as interpreted by some of the neo-Vipassana teachers, he would sometimes shake his head and say, in effect, “But that’s not what I meant at all!” I remember many years ago I meditated at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre. At the end of the corridor where I did walking meditation there was a sign that read, “Allow whatever arises.” Whenever I walked towards the sign and it came into my field of vision, I would always think of the Buddha’s saying, “Here, a monk does not tolerate an arisen thought of sensual desire … ill-will … cruelty … or any other arisen unwholesome state, but abandons it, eliminates it, and completely dispels it.” I was tempted to replace the sign there with one that had this saying, but fortunately I resisted the temptation. If I had been discovered, I might have been expelled.”

Sadu, sadu, sadu.[v]


[i] Meditator

[ii] “AN” – Anguttara Nikāya – the Numerical Discourses of the Buddha

[iii] “MN” – Majjhima Nikāya, the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha

[iv] Venerable Nyanaponika coined the term “bare attention”

[v] Sadu means “well said”.

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Making a Difference

I am sitting here at the Starbucks in Mt. Laurel, NJ. A very dear old friend of mine from Cherry Hill committed suicide on Monday and I am here for the funeral.

I first met Bill the summer after my senior year in high school. When you know someone that long, you have a lot of history. I am very close to his wife Shellie and his two children Ethan and Emily.

Bill was a very prominent attorney. His specialties were criminal law and civil rights law. He has this long resume of accomplishments. He was a public figure. This will be a big funeral with lots of well known people.

But what strikes me most about all this is that for the many wonderful things that Bill did and for the memorable person he was, he was never happy. He was incredibly smart and competent and capable and had a great sense of humor. But underneath it all was lurking this dark seed.

I remember when I first heard the Dalai Lama and he talked about how everyone wants to be happy, and I thought, well, of course, how obvious is that? But as I have gotten older and – hopefully – wiser I have realized just what a subtle and complicated business being happy is. We start by misdefining it as money, career, “success”, having a trophy husband or wife, being famous, being talented, etc. and of course if any of those things were the keys to happiness then people who have those things would be happy. They’re not.

The Buddha asked that question in a big way, and he went to extraordinary lengths to find the answer, and it is one reason that I am so eternally grateful to that big Indian lug for what he did.

The last time I saw Bill was last May when I was on my way out to New Mexico. His daughter asked him why he became a lawyer, to which he answered, “I wanted to make a difference.”

Well, he did, and in a bigger way than most people. (It is to be argued, of course, that everyone makes a difference. Some differences are good and some are bad, and some are bigger than others. Henry David Thoreau said, “Show me a seed and I am prepared to expect miracles.” You never know what kind of a difference you are making.) So I have been thinking that his epitaph should be, “He made a difference.” And then I thought, what I would like if I were to have an epitaph? I think I would like this: “Sometimes he really liked to breathe.” The hope is that over time, this, too, will make a difference.

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Same old, same old

Life is mainly about what happens in your heart and mind. In Pāḷi there is a single word for “heart and mind”; that word is citta.

When Henry David Thoreau was on his deathbed, his aunt – who today would be called an “evangelical Christian”, and who greatly disapproved of Henry’s transcendentalism – asked him accusatorily, “Have you made your peace with God?” Henry replied, “I wasn’t aware that we had quarreled.”

Now there is a man who is at peace with his place in the universe.

Recently a dearly beloved friend of mine – who has lived in Israel for many decades – posted this to her Facebook page:

“We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.”

It is a quote from Golda Meir. I replied as follows:

No one forces you to kill anyone. That is a choice that you make. “We cannot change people with our hatred. Maybe we can change them with our love.” – Ayya Khema (a Buddhist nun who was born a German Jew, and who was one of the last Jewish children to leave Germany before the borders were closed before WW II.)

From a purely clinical point of view, it is an issue of cause and effect. But of course, it is fundamentally about your heart and mind. How do you want to be? Do you want to be happy? Do you want to live in peace and harmony with the world around you?

Robert Thurman – that inimitable Buddhist force in the world – says that we usually pit ourselves against the Universe. Since the Universe is much bigger than we are, the Universe usually wins.

There is a famous quotation that is usually attributed to Einstein, although its source is undetermined. Nonetheless, its wisdom is indisputable, and that quote is, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

If the Israelis want life to continue, year after year, decade after decade, as it has, then they should continue with the same policies that they have in the past. It will, of course, get the same result.

It they want a different result, they will have to adopt a different approach.

The Buddha says that the antidote to fear, hatred, and anger is love, compassion and wisdom. In my own personal experience, he is correct. I tried hating those who hate me, with an obvious result. And I tried meeting people who hate me with love, understanding, equanimity, and wisdom. I had somewhat better results. It was not perfect, but it was better.

Mark Twain once said in his essay Advice to Boys and Girls, “Always speak the truth; it will impress some and astonish the rest.” The same can be said for love, compassion, and understanding. A little bit of practical wisdom – seeing that doing “A” leads to “B” – does not hurt either. Keep firing those missiles. Keep killing people. The result is predictable.

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Keep Calm and Carry On

Since my last post I have moved to New Mexico and become a part of the Albuquerque Vipassana Sangha. What I see there is the same thing that I see in other local groups and at retreats and anywhere that people are trying to master the art of meditation, and that is a great deal of struggle.

At last night’s meeting the issue was impermanence. This is, of course, one of the core teachings of the Buddha, that all conditioned things arise and pass away, and that except for Nibbana (Nirvana) all things are conditioned. This can be a very unsettling notion. And when you link impermanence to the two other marks of conditioned existence – non-self (yikes!) and dukkha (suffering, stress, un-satisfactoriness – more yikes!) – it all sounds pretty depressing.

Believe it or not, the Buddha’s teaching are really good news, but that message tends to get lost sometimes, especially in the way in which the Buddha’s teachings have migrated to the West. Instead of the good news getting put front and center, it tends to get relegated to sitting in the back of the room.

I read once that the Buddha did not teach the Four Noble Truths to new converts. It was considered too counter-productive to do so. The Four Noble Truths, along with the Three Marks of Existence (as noted – impermanence, non-self, and dukkha), and dependent co-arising (the Buddhist law of causality), are part of the wisdom practices (pañña, in Pali) of Buddhadharma. It is pretty heady stuff.

Now it takes a certain amount of wisdom simply to undertake this practice. Having said that, the Buddha is often said to have taught sīla-samādhi-pañña. Sīla is ethics/morality/virtue. Samādhi is concentration. Pañña is wisdom, or discernment.

Further, the practice actually proceeds in this order (more or less… the process is iterative and at the end non-linear). You start with the cultivation of a firm ethical base. You stop doing the things that cause harm to yourself and others. You start doing more and more things that bring you and other people happiness. It is very hard to proceed with a meditation practice if your ethical life is a mess.

For the Buddha’s monks and nuns, the practice of virtue was and is serious stuff. There are over 200 precepts for monks, over 300 for nuns. The novice monastic has to memorize them all and be able to chant them. It is part of the ceremony for full ordination. And thereafter the precepts are chanted on the full moon and new moon days of every lunar month as part of the Uposatha observance. There is also a reflection and confession component to the precepts (pāṭimokkha) recitation ceremony. It is an active practice.

Most Buddhists in the world do not practice meditation, but they do observe the ethical precepts. Or at least they are supposed to.

For the meditator, at least the way the Buddha taught, the next step is to establish a sense of well-being. In the Ānāpānasati Sutta, the Buddha’s most complete teaching on meditation, the first four steps are as follows:

  1. Note when the breaths are short.
  2. Note when the breaths are long.
  3. Become aware of the whole body.
  4. “Tranquilize” the whole body.

In other words, the start to a meditation practice is to learn how to develop serenity, tranquility, calm. This leads to the next two steps in the Buddha’s instructions:

  1. rapture (pītī in Pali)
  2. happiness (sukha)

It is only by step 7 that what have come to be called insight or vipassana practices – discernment – come into play. In step 7 the meditator is instructed to be sensitive to “mental activities”. Even then, the nest step – step 8 – is to “tranquilize” mental activities.

Thus the whole of what is being taught here is the cultivation of serenity, to calm the body, to calm the mind.

Now very few “Vipassana” meditators will recognize this practice. They are taught simply to be with whatever arises. If the knee hurts, just stay with it. If painful thoughts arise, just be with them. What a miserable way to practice; it is completely counter-productive. You are trying to do wisdom – discernment – practices without having a firm base. You do not have enough calm and stability and well-being to effectively cultivate discernment. It is like trying to play soccer without having enough stamina to run for more than 2 minutes.

The correct way to practice is to learn to work with the breath in a pleasant and satisfying way. This is cultivating the garden soil from which wisdom will grow.

Everyone knows how to take a deep breath in order to release stress. That is a great starting point. There are many, many practices for developing concentration, tranquility and serenity. But one of the best and simplest ones that I know is that when the mind has wandered or is anxious or is spinning or doing anything that causes stress, simply take a nice, satisfying breath. It doesn’t have to be overly dramatic. Simply learn how to take a breath that feels good. Reward yourself for your moment of awareness. Note the stress, then take a breath that feels good. Feel the breath go all the way in and all the way out. Feel it in the whole body. You might even take another, and another. Follow the Buddha’s instructions. Tranquilize the body. Tranquilize feelings. Tranquilize mental formations. When you can do this, you have a firm base for looking deeply into the majesty of how everything works.

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A Single Excellent Night

There is a lovely sutta (discourse) in the Majjhima Niaya called “A Single Excellent Night”. In it, the Buddha offers these verses:

Let not a person revive the past
Or on the future build his hopes;
For the past has been left behind
And the future has not been reached.
Instead, with insight, let him see
Each presently arisen state;
Let him know that and be sure of it,
Invincibly, unshakably.
Today the effort must be made;
Tomorrow Death may come. Who knows?
No bargain with Mortality
Can keep him and his hordes away,
But one who dwells thus ardently,
Relentlessly, by day, by night —
It is he, the Peaceful Sage has said,
Who has had a single excellent night.
MN 131

The image of peacefully and mindfully observing each passing moment is so palpable that you can feel it. The simplicity is profound.

Ajahn Punnadhammo says about the jhanas that as you progress from one jhana to the next, it isn’t that you gain something new, but that something that is occurring falls away. Each subsequent jhana gets simpler. That can be said in general of the Buddhist path. There are all the complexities and complications of the unawakened life, and to the extent that we can stop the internal dialog, stop creating melodrama, stop contending with the people and the world around us, we are happier and more useful people. This echoes somewhat the Mahayana notion that we are already whole and complete and perfect. What we need to learn how to do is to shed all the things that get in our way of that perfection.

When I first read this sutta I was, of course, struck by its beauty. I was then very pleased to see that I am not the only one. The next three suttas in the Majjhima Nikaya are also about this verse. In MN 131, “Ananda and A Single Excellent Night”, Ananda recites this verse to a group of practitioners, for which he earns the Buddha’s praise.

In MN 133, “Mahā Kaccāna and A Single Excellent Night” there is one of those wonderful, magical tales. A “deity who illuminated the whole of the Hot Springs” asks the venerable Samiddhi if he knows the “summary and exposition of ‘One Who Has Had a Single Excellent Night’”. Samiddhi does not know it, so he asks the Buddha to teach it to him. The Buddha recites the verse, but does not explain it in detail. This happens often in the canonical literature. The Buddha was something of a minimalist.

So Samiddhi and some of his friends go to Mahā Kaccāna, a monk of good reputation and character, and ask him for an exposition. This also happens a lot in these stories. You get the impression that the monks are pretty intimidated by the Buddha, which – I think – is pretty natural. Mahā Kaccāna then gives them a teaching in detail on the meaning of the verse. The Buddha later hears Mahā Kaccāna’s explanation of it, and praises the explanation as being equal to any the Buddha himself would have given.

The final sutta is MN 134, “Lomasakangiya and A Single Excellent Night.” In this story, a young deity named “Candana” asks the monk Lomasakangiya if he knows this teaching. Lomasakangiya  does not, but Candana remembers the stanzas and recites them. According to Candana, the Buddha had given this teaching to “the gods of the heaven of the Thirty-Three”.

After this, Lomasakangiya  “travels by stages” from Sakya to Jetavana Park where the Buddha was staying. This is quite a long way, and would have meant walking for many days. This shows the urgency that Lomasakangiya  felt about learning more about this teaching. When he gets to see the Buddha, the Buddha repeats the whole of MN 131 (more or less), and “The Venerable Lomasakangiya was satisfied and delighted in the Blessed One’s words.”

This verse could be said to contain the whole of the Buddhist path. If you only had this verse and nothing else, it would be enough.

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Honor The Hawk

I love the sound of hawks.

That may sound strange, since I am a Buddhist, a vegetarian, a lover of life. And hawks are, of course, carnivores, raptors, killers of life.

Bur hawks live simply in harmony with their true nature. They live with the way they were designed to be.

I worked for 18 years in a place called “The Chace Mill”. New England is full of places like The Chace Mill. It is a magnificent, three story brick building, huge by 19th century standards. The posts that hold it up are made from massive hardwood, thick and strong and sturdy.  The floors could withstand a nuclear attack. Well, maybe.

The Chace Mill is next to the Winooski Falls, which to my mind is one of the most wonderful places in New England, perhaps the world. The Abnaki Indians lived by its shores before Europeans came. It must have been a wonderful life. The woods were deep and rich and vibrant, and the Winooski River flowed, then as now, from central Vermont into Lake Champlain.

Then the French came. The French allied themselves with the Iroquois, who lived mainly on the other side of Lake Champlain. The Abnaki were Algonquians, enemies of the Iroquois. But early on the Iroquois were disorganized and the Algonquians were united and strong.

Eventually, however, the Iroquois tribes united, and after a fashion became stronger than the Algonquians. And the Iroquois allied themselves with the British, the eventual winners in the battle for New England and Canada. And the Abnaki, sadly, were erased from the equation in Vermont.

Eventually Ethan Allen – the hero of Fort Ticonderoga – his brother Ira – founder of the University of Vermont – and Thomas Chittenden – namesake of Chittenden County and the first Governor of Vermont – founded the Onion River Trading Company, on the precise spot where I worked for 18 years. And through it all, the hawks lived and hunted on the Winooski – Abnaki for “Onion” – River.

Hawks have a very distinctive sound, and while I worked at the Chace Mill I heard it and listened to it often. I worked on the third floor of the mill, and often I would sit and look out my window and see the hawks hovering over the river, hunting and looking for their prey.

It is the dance of life. Life feeds on life, and that is how it is. Our opportunity as human beings is to make a choice, not to kill, to respect and revere all living things. I love the hawk for its ability to live within its own nature. I love the human even more, for its ability to rise above it.

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