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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