Objective: This talk described the overview of Buddhist meditation, the process and goal of the practice. It was transcribed from a talk given on November 6, 2004.
Listen attentively to the dhamma, so that you may gain more understanding. Listening is part of the dhamma study, so that you will gain wisdom. You might hear something new, or clarify something that you have heard before. It will get rid of your doubt, so that your mind becomes a wholesome one that is clear and blissful. You will find ways to solve your problems. Everyone has problems once we are born, and everyone has suffering. What matters is how are we going to solve them, in order to end our own suffering. We can’t solve problems by creating more suffering. When trying to untie a rope – if done incorrectly – we end up creating more tangles.
Nowadays, more often than not, people do not have the right way to solve problems. It is comparable to cleaning your hands using mud.
All of us have two kinds of suffering: body suffering and mind suffering.
Body suffering are the processes of aging and sickness.
Mind suffering occurs when you do not get what you want, are separated from loved ones, are faced with what you don’t like, do not get what you had hoped for, or become bored with the same old things.
We can relieve some illnesses by using medical treatment, but it is not a permanent cure – the illness will likely return. Eventually, it cannot be cured, and the body will die. The relief from mind suffering is achieved by using the dhamma. From where does one get the dhamma? In the end, it does not come from any book, temple or monk. The dhamma that will end your suffering has to come from within your own self. No matter how excellent the dhamma, if it belongs to another – even to the Buddha or an enlightened person – it will not resolve your suffering. If you gain your own dhamma and insight, even for a small part, you will benefit greatly from it. A comparison can be made to food: a great amount of food that belongs to another cannot compare to the spoonful of food that you place in your own mouth. That spoonful can relieve your hunger. Thus, the dhamma must arise in you in order to relieve your own suffering!
How can the dhamma be created in you? All human beings have the potential to create the dhamma, but most just don’t know how. We tend to live our lives inevitably in the wrong way, by searching for pleasant things for our eyes, ears, nose, taste and touch – to please those senses as we see fit. We mistakenly assume that doing so will reduce our suffering, so we search for them more and more. But no one has ever been completely satisfied; it does not matter how much money you have, how successful you are in your job, etc. – there is no end to it.
When a person has an addiction, there are two options to choose from:
a) To supply himself with more of the drug.
b) Find a way to get rid of the addiction.
The first is not the answer, since the cravings will continue and will increase. It is not the way to end suffering.
The second way stops the craving, which ends the problem. When the mind is free from craving, whether they have the drug or not is no longer an issue.
The Buddhist way to end suffering is the second way – by ending the attachment and craving. Human beings are often afraid of pain. They are not brave enough to get rid of it, so they will keep on finding more “drugs”. If, however, you are brave enough to restrain your need, eventually you will be able to stop. We are attached to sensual pleasures in the same way that addicts are attached to drugs. When we are able to stop the cravings, we can end the suffering. It is very important to understand the method, in order to practice correctly.
How can we stop the craving mind?
We cannot stop the craving mind just by thinking or listening. For example, when you are learning to drive, you can not just think about stepping on the gas or holding the steering wheel alone. You have to take a driving lesson and begin to practice driving. Initially, it will be difficult to drive straight, but after much practice your skill will be improved. In order to stop the craving mind, we must do the same. You cannot rely on thinking or listening to others – you have to practice for yourself, and not only just once. Since the mind has no form and is hard to find, the practice will need even more repetition than learning to drive.
Meditation practice is the way to train the mind. There are two methods that we use: concentration meditation (Samatha) and insight meditation (Vipassana).
Samatha meditation uses focus on one object such as the breath, or a word/mantra like “Bud-dho”. The mind will become concentrated from this meditation, and gain jhana. The defilements will be suppressed, but not eradicated. Craving will return again when there is contact with sensual objects. Sometimes it comes back even stronger once you stop meditating. In this practice, the object upon which we meditate is mostly conventional. It has a name or shape, such as the buddha statue, the in/out breath, etc., and there are many objects to choose from. You stay with the same object until full concentration develops.
The other method of meditation, Vipassana, uses mindfulness or awareness. It allows the mind to perceive whatever appears at the present moment, until a clear comprehension develops. The awareness must cover the entire body. The objects that we observe and are mindful of are called paramattha, or “ultimate truth”. These objects appear as basic sensations in the body, such as cold/hot, soft/hard, and tense/vibrating. The sensations will appear where there are nerve endings. The more you observe, the more sensations you will notice. The goal is to feel these sensations all over the body. You can start in one section, then gradually spread the awareness out to cover the whole body. Try to detect it faster and faster. From that you can be aware of the mind activity that goes along with it. It is easier to start with the body, then go to the mind.
In the mind one can observe thought, feeling, and that which is called the “knowing” ability (the knowing mind is the mind that is aware of things). We need to watch the mind repeatedly until we understand the nature of it. When you are more skillful, you will be able to know both the body and mind spontaneously. The mind will become more alert, concentrated, and will not wander outside. Initially, thoughts will pop up quite often. When you notice that happening, bring it back in. Sooner or later, it will stay in the body. You will have awareness of all sensory inputs – seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, body sensation and the mind. Focus not only on one thing, but instead observe everything that comes into contact. You can start with one portion of the body first, then spread the awareness over the whole body, and then observe the mind. The way of practicing mindfulness of the sensations is by meditating on the Paramattha dhamma (“ultimate truth”), otherwise known as rupa (form) dhamma and nama (knowing or mind) dhamma.
Seeing the body as body parts as arms, legs, face, etc. is the conventional (sammutti or pannatti) way, with conventional labels. When the mind lets go of the conventional truth there will be no arms, legs, face, etc. The only thing left is sensation. When you sit you will feel hot / cold and soft / hard, without any shapes. The mind is the one that creates the shape from memory and proliferation, which then forms into the mental image of an arm, our body’s sitting posture, or standing, etc. These are all conventional truths. When the mindfulness and clear comprehension are fully developed, there will be no shape, no meaning, no name. When you practice and feel that the sitting body is gone – don’t be afraid, don’t open your eyes and don’t move. If we go back to the conventional way, it is not the way to nibbana because you still hold on to your body. On the Vipassana path you will need to let go of the shape, name, meaning and have only the “ultimate truth” which is the sensation. The knowing element will then appear.
The more you practice, the more truths will show up. The truths have been there, waiting for you to discover it. The body is composed of the elements of earth, fire, wind, water, and consciousness, or the mind. These are the real dhamma conditions. There is no “human” or “animal”. The practice is to realize these facts, and so you don’t create anything. We usually are blinded by the conventional truth. We have to get rid of names, of language, meaning, and shapes in order to see the core of life. When one eats an egg, they are not attached to the shell. We have to peel that off. The shell is the same as the conventional truths that needs to be peeled away. The mind that is attached to shapes or names will not see the real truth.
Conventional truth, however, is still useful in helping with concentration. The mind needs an anchor so that the new meditator can focus on the breathing in and out, “Bud-dho” mantra, or posture, etc. Once the mind settles down, then you can connect to the inside by focusing on the sensation on the skin, or go even deeper into the internal organs, such as the lungs, the chest. Every part of the body has sensations that you can observe. When you have more experience, you can go directly to the sensation.
Vipassana meditation can be simply understood as watching the sensations. The question is, what can you get from watching them (cold / hot, soft / hard, tension / vibrating, pleasant / unpleasant)? The answer is that you will gain wisdom (insight) into this life.
What is the value of wisdom?
The wisdom will reduce the defilements and attachments that cause us to crave, to suffer, to cling on, etc. When we realize the true nature of life, that wisdom will be the weapon that cuts through the defilements. If we have no wisdom, we will still be clinging to conventional ways – this is “me”, my leg, my arm, do not bother “me”, don’t say bad things about me, etc. Anger will arise because of this self. After meditation, you will realize that there is no self. There are only clusters of elements, or nature. Bad words are only sound waves that come into contact with the ear, then disappear. But we usually still hold onto them and get mad. In fact, there is no “me”, no mine.
When you have a clear comprehension of yourself, you will understand others better as well. Life is the same, no matter when you were born. It is composed of elements that change or break up all the time, and are out of our control. We suffer because we do not get what we want. This is because we want impermanent things to be permanent. We want to control the uncontrollable. We want other people and things to be the way that we wanted. All these are causes of suffering or dissatisfaction.
You will realize that all things are impermanent; even our mind changes all the time. They are out of our control. But what else can we do? We can accept it!
The mind that can accept these truths will not be bothered. This occurs because you have already realized the truth. When we watch a waterfall, we already know that the water will flow from the upper to lower level. We have already accepted it and it does not bother us. If we wanted it to flow upward, then we would suffer since it would not go our way.
The mind that is accepting of the impermanence and our inability to control it will only occur when seeing the truth in oneself – that things always change, they cannot be any other way. Once it arises, it will then disappear. Every cell in the body, every atom, will break down at some point in time – we cannot control or stop them. We cannot stop the aging process. In reality, cells are born and die at every moment, but we cannot see it clearly unless we practice vipassana. With vipassana, eventually we will develop the ‘yana’ (insight) to observe these changes. The experience will be different, depending on each level of insight. Some may feel like waves that roll onto the beach, and then disappear. Others may feel like popcorn popping, or grains of sand scattering, etc.
The mind has a more rapid rate of rising and falling than the body. Since we cannot see it, we are led to believe that the mind or consciousness are permanent. So we imagine that after death, the body disintegrates but the consciousness remains. We wrongly believe that it is permanent, that it leaves one body to be reborn in another one. This belief is from the attachment to the wrong view that we call Sakkayaditthi, or attachment of the self, or being permanent (Sassataditthi). This is the belief that the mind or consciousness is a real “self” (atta). Many religions have this kind of belief, and a lot of Buddhists also have this wrong understanding. However, the Buddha did not teach this way. Even when we are alive, there is no permanent mind and no permanent self. If this is true, how can you find a permanent one that dies or is reborn? When the explanation is made in the “ultimate truth” (Paramattha dhamma), then there is no dead or alive animal, no dead or alive human, there is no death and rebirth at all.
In conventional teachings, it can be said that the person who has done a lot of merit in his life will be born into the deva realm. The person who commits a lot of unwholesome acts will be born into the lower realms. But the ultimate truth is different – there is no one being born or dying. When they were alive, sitting here, talking, listening – they were still not human beings. There was no “you” or “I”, “me” or “mine”. In reality, what we call a person is an accumulation of elements (earth, water, fire, wind, air, consciousness, and other things etc.) that are being held together. These elements will break up and disappear, according to cause and effect. The consciousness also arises and disappears. Cells will break up all the time. Each element is not an animal or human. It is only a natural process that is held together, and they do not have insight. The wrong views and/or defilements lead us to be attached to this body – that it is a true “self”, that it belongs to us. In fact, there is no self! When there is no self in this moment, how can we say that this person dies or that animal dies? If we say that the person “dies”, there has to be a person who was “alive” in the first place.
When someone once asked the Buddha, “Would an animal be born after death?”, he did not respond. He also did not respond to the question, “Will a person disappear after death?” This was because the questions were wrong, to ask about an animal or person. In reality, at the present moment, there is neither person nor animal.
The Buddha knew that the questions were useless, that they did not lead to nibbana. His teachings were aimed at realizing suffering, the cause of it, the end of it, and how to end it. Anything outside of this was not taught. If he gave a teaching to the villagers, he would teach about the effects of one’s actions. If they did unwholesome acts, after death the rebirth would be into the lower realms. One who did wholesome acts through body, speech and mind would be reborn as a human or deva. If the teaching was given to a meditator or serious practitioner who aimed for enlightenment, he would be taught directly about the ultimate truth (Paramattha dhamma). His teachings would change, depending on the situation and the listeners.
Thus, we must understand the real conditions of life, that it is a mass of elements that cling together. The moment of death means that there is no more balance, that the elements are not agreeable, so life cannot be sustained and the body disintegrates. This mass of elements has the effects of the previous kamma, with ignorance (avijja) as a cause. So the new mass will be formed again, and we would say a “person” was born or an “animal” was born. In fact, it is a group of earth, water, fire, and wind elements that are transferred from one mass to another. After birth, these elements will appear and disappear continuously. Ignorance is the origin of the defilements, and craving and self-delusion drive us into creating kamma. If the ignorance is still present, then there is no escape from the cycle of life and death. This mass of elements will continue to suffer after birth, but a person would think that he or she is the one that suffers.
Vipassana meditation will uncover these facts. When we meditate, we will see that there are only natural phenomena that are continuously changing. There is no “me” or “mine”. This is wisdom that will lead us to the letting go of attachment and the cutting off of delusion and ignorance. The strength of wisdom will cut the cycle of cause and effect, stop the cycle of birth and death and thus, reach nibbana.
It all started from the meditation practice that the Buddha discovered after his enlightenment. If he did not teach this, there would be no one who understood the ultimate truth about life. We would only know about the conventional ways. There is no other teaching that speaks of the concept of anatta (non-self) – only the Buddha taught this. Other religions may teach how to do good things, or teach about concentration meditation. This could lead to being born into higher realms like the brahma. One disciple asked the Buddha if there was any permanent soul or self that was born and lived indefinitely. The Buddha used his finger nail to pick up dirt and said that there was no permanent existing condition, even when compared to this amount of dirt. Any being with ignorance and cravings will continue spinning within the cycle of samsara. So the big problem in life is being caught in this cycle of life and death. We need to find the way out of this cycle. The worldly problems are minor – you can solve them but they will always recur again, and there is no end to it. It is a small problem inside of a bigger one. The problems of old age, sickness, death, and separation from loved ones cannot be solved. If we can solve the bigger problem of being reborn again and again, the other problems will be resolved by themselves. The mind free from attachment will not suffer from old age, sickness, separation or even death. There is no suffering because there is understanding of the truth. A problem will not exist because the mind has already let go of it and this is where it ends. It does not matter how many problems there are if the mind can let go. If attachment still exists, every time we solve a problem a new one arises again.
The answer lies in the mind. When the mind is able to let go, then it will be clear and peaceful. The Buddhist teaching aims at solving the problem in the mind. It however does not mean that you can neglect this body since it is not yours. You still have to be responsible for yourself, your family, your belongings, etc., and do whatever needs to be done. These are yours temporarily. In the end, when changes occur you will be able to accept them.
You have to train the mind by practicing meditation in order to cultivate wisdom.
The training is to learn about yourself, and not pay attention to the outside. The outside world and its problems are endless, but knowing about our body and mind will end all of the problems within. When you understand yourself, these problems will be over. You have the ability and the right to learn about yourself. The tool is there as well, so there’s no need to travel anywhere to find it. The way to enlightenment is “knowing yourself”. This is why the dhamma is said to be “sanditthiko” which means the meditator will know it by oneself. We can sense it by ourselves – we don’t have to believe others – and the dhamma can be proven. The Buddha’s teaching is the truth that can be seen without believing in others. You can begin seeing the path to end suffering after gaining some concentration and mindfulness.
The Buddha said that greed, hatred and delusion are the causes of suffering. Can you tell if this is true? You can see how anger makes you unhappy, and how cravings also do the same. When you develop mindfulness and are able to let go, you will find that when your greed, hatred and delusion are reduced, you are happier. The mind will be blissful and peaceful. This is just the beginning – the more you let go, the more happiness you will experience. This can end our suffering, you don’t have to listen to what other people say. Similarly, when you take medicine and get better, you know for a fact that it must be good.
The most important thing is having the right aim and right intention.
We need to set a goal for our life, have a direction we want to go in, and know the main value of life. If not, we will be aimless and just go with the flow. Worldly jobs are temporary – the real job is mental cultivation. What we can do to develop wisdom and eliminate the defilements is more important, since it can end suffering! You can do your work when there is an opportunity, but don’t be too serious about it. Having wealth, status, etc., cannot end your suffering. Clear understanding and gaining insight is more important. Let us have a clear aim, clear understanding, and right view while living this very life!
This is the end of the dhamma talk. I wish for everyone to have happiness and prosperity, and continue to make progress in understanding the dhamma.
Photo courtesy of Taro Taylor.