Dhamma Talk 3 – Three Methods of Meditation Practice

Dhamma WheelThree Methods of Meditation Practice

8 January 2005

Objective: The three methods of meditation practice are described. Progress and success in the practice can depend on the right selection of the method most suitable for the meditator.

This talk will focus on the meditation practice. According to what was described by the Buddha, it can be compiled into three methods. Success will vary with each method, depending on the background, character and previous experience of the person in question. If you choose a suitable one, your meditation practice will progress. On the other hand, the wrong method may delay results or block success.

One example was a young monk who was ordained by Sariputta , the main disciple of the Buddha. Seeing as he was a young monk who tended to be preoccupied with sensual pleasures, Sariputta advised him to contemplate the 32 body parts as his object of meditation. This is usually the method to eradicate lust, since the contemplation is on the dirtiness or unpleasantness of each body part – the skin, hair, nails etc. This young monk tried very hard, but did not see any progress. So he was brought before the Buddha, who gave him a lotus to contemplate. It did not take him long before he became enlightened. The Buddha had insight into his nature – he saw that this monk had been a goldsmith for hundreds of lifetimes. He was used to seeing beautiful and delicate objects. Once he contemplated a suitable object, he was able to make progress and become enlightened.

And so, let us see which one of these methods will be best for you.

1. Samatha (tranquility) meditation before vipassana (insight) meditation:  samatha pubbangama vipassana (develop insight preceded by tranquility)

WIth this method, you would start by focusing on the pannatti (conventional) object until full concentration develops and you gain jhana (state of absorption in meditation). After that you pick up each of the jhanic factors (rapture, happiness and one-pointedness) and contemplate the three characteristics (impermanence, suffering, and non-self) of these jhanic factors.

When developing samatha, the objects used are pannatti. These can be bright lights, signs, a crystal ball, etc. But, when doing vipassana,  contemplation will be directly on the mind. Allow the knowing mind to focus on the jhanic factors, which are the paramattha (ultimate truth). They will be appearing and disappearing, which are the three characteristics in the jhana. When one sees this clearly, insight will develop and one will be liberated.

2. Practicing vipassana from the start, with samatha occurring afterward: vipassana pubbangama samatha (develop tranquility preceded by insight).

These can be done if one has an understanding of vipassana practice and uses mindfulness to observe the paramattha dhamma that is present at that moment. Any sensation that comes through the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind may be watched. The sensation may be cold/hot, soft/hard, tense/vibrating, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, etc. The mind can also be observed from time to time as thinking, knowing, feeling. With this method, the concentration will not be strong enough to suppress the hindrances. Any of these hindrances (sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness, doubt) can be the object of meditation. When mindfulness improves, and the meditator is able to be aware of any input more quickly and continuously, then samadhi will occur spontaneously. This happens without having to focus on any meditation object. The key lies in having the mind be neutral, not overly focused, and able to let go  without clinging to each input. The mind will be stable, centered, and not wandering outside the body. It will keep the knowing inside the body and mind.

You have to have understanding in paramattha dhamma, which is being able to observe the condition of the body and mind. The focus, however, is not on the conventional object. In order to do Vipassana, one does not need to have deep concentration – momentary concentration (khanika samadhi) is enough. The practice can be done in every posture–standing, sitting, lying down, bathing, brushing–until mindfulness and clear comprehension occur spontaneously. Concentration will follow, leading to the development of vipassana insight and the liberation of the mind.

3. This method will be the one for those who have tried and cannot practice using the other two. They do not have the right faculty to develop jhana, or mindfulness that is not strong enough, or enough understanding about the paramattha. So, for them vipassana was also not successful. This method involves using samatha in tandem with vipassana; it is called yuganaddha samatha vipassana.

This method seems to be suitable for many people nowadays. It is harder for them to gain jhana, and they do not possess enough understanding to do vipassana. This way, they can alternate between the two.

Begin by focusing on the pannatti like the inbreath/ outbreath, using “bud-dho”, or counting. Concentration will develop but not to the point of having one-pointedness. When the mindfulness is strong enough to stay with the breath, then start observing the sensations. When the air comes in, there will be tension rising in the lungs. When it goes out, there will be relaxation. There is also a pleasant feeling that comes with the breathing.  Knowing of inbreath/ outbreath is samatha, while knowing tension/relaxation and the pleasant feeling is vipassana. This method alternates between the two.

Some may be familiar with the watching of the abdomen. The knowing of the rising and falling is samatha. If one can sense the tension or vibration of the abdomen, that is vipassana.

While focusing on the sitting posture, it is pannatti since there is a shape and meaning. But knowing the hard sensation around the buttocks while sitting or knowing unpleasant feelings is paramattha. The same thing is true with walking: knowing the lifting, stretching, stepping or right foot-left foot is pannatti. Feelings of hard/soft or pleasant feeling is paramattha. This way, we can alternate between samatha and vipassana. After repeated observations, they will begin to separate from each other. Some may have stronger concentration and gain samadhi – the mind will then attain one-pointedness. Others may drop the panatti – all words, shape, meaning, etc. The mindfulness is only with the sensation. This becomes pure vipassana practice and continues on the path to liberation.

If the concentration is getting better and heading towards becoming one-pointedness, let it be. Do not withdraw from it. Allow the samadhi to develop and continue to do vipassana later. If the mind can contemplate the sensation, be persistent until vipassana develops. We can practice any way we choose with a clear understanding. We will have a broader mind and be able to understand why some people do it this way or others that way. They can walk fast or slow, it is okay. You will not cling to your own method and will not decide that others are wrong. Understanding the scope of the practice will allow you to know how it can progress. It can start with focusing on the pannatti and continuing into paramattha.

The next goal is understanding the paramattha dhamma, rupa dhamma (form) or nama dhamma (mind). You can start by listening to the teaching about rupa nama, pannatti and paramattha and knowing what they are.

The paramattha in the body are the sensations of hot/cold, soft/hard, tension/vibration, pleasant and unpleasant feelings, etc. If you have never experienced these sensations on your own, you will only memorize it, but not yet know it. When you start practicing you will discover reality – know the cold/hot, soft/hard, tension/vibration, etc. Now you will be able to acknowledge the real thing. You will find the mind, see what the thoughts are, and see your greed, hatred, etc. You need to look into these directly and do it repeatedly. In the end, you will have a clear understanding because the things that you have observed will reveal the truth.

What is the truth that you will see?

The truth is that everything will appear and disappear, that everything is impermanent! It cannot be sustained in the same way and it is out of our control. These are called the three characteristics, “anicca, dukkha and anatta”. These dhamma conditions will be observed repeatedly until you gain a clear insight that this life is only a natural process of appearing and disappearing. It depends on the system of cause and effect. It is not us, and it does not belong to us. We are used to thinking that there is a self, but after practicing repeatedly we will realize that there is truly no self. This is the way to withdraw from that attachment and purify the mind.

When you truly see a condition, it has no name. For example, when you eat a foreign dish, you know what it tastes like, and you are full afterward. But if another person told you about when they had it, we could only imagine how it tastes but not really know it.

Gain vipassana insight first by listening, and then by trying to practice continuously, with clear understanding. This is the most valuable thing in life. It would be a waste of the time available in your life if you did not get the chance to hear the teaching of the way to end suffering, and the path to do that. Instead, you would become lost and would continue on that path which leads to suffering. Even when you would try to do good, it could be the good deed that leads to suffering, and not out of suffering. But, if you practice vipassana, it will be the good deed that leads you out of suffering.

The result of making the same merit can be different: one will stay in suffering, but another will lead to the end of suffering. If you make merit with understanding, it will lead you out. If you wished for a reward from the merit, like gaining prosperity after making a donation, or being reborn in heaven, this means that you wished for it with greed in your mind. You will still receive merit, but you still have attachments or delusions, which in no way can lead you out of suffering. You will continue in the endless cycle of aging, sickness and death, separation from loved ones, not getting what you want or getting what you don’t want.

Another person made the same merit and wanted to end suffering, so then did he wish to get rid of his cravings. Would he gain prosperity even though he did not wish for it? He already gave, which was his cause for wealth, so the effect would follow. It is the same as planting a mango – the result will be a mango tree that bears fruit. If you make merit without having delusion, it is the way out of suffering. This is one of the virtues.

Having done good deeds in the past will be reflected in having good results in this life. That you are able to attend a meditation retreat can be the result of your past wholesome acts. If you had no past merit, you would not be able to reach this point of practicing vipassana. This is not a coincidence! It is a sign of one who can be liberated. That is why you are on the path to nibbana. If you had no past merit, it would not happen. You must have done some good deeds and wished for an end to suffering. It brought you the conditions, the faith, or the invitation from someone to attend the retreat. Now you have the chance to practice vipassana, which will lead you to see the light at the end. It must have been virtue that brought you here. This explains how merit making could result in liberation. Merit can be performed by giving (dana) or keeping precepts (sila). If you do so with the goal of liberation, it will add up in your virtue. So you have to understand the right way of making merit. It is called kusalavivatta gamini (making merit to end suffering).

Visiting the temple and learning the teachings will increase your wisdom. It helps you understand the way to cultivate the mind, and how to lead your life. And, it is more valuable than not having any understanding. Many do it blindly or have the wrong understanding, or even do it as a ritual. The result would be kusala yana vipayutti (making merit without wisdom). But when we do it with understanding, we know what is wholesome and unwholesome or know the law of kamma, etc. So the wholesome act is done with underlying wisdom, which will be kusala yana sampayutta.

Better than making merit is practicing vipassana meditation by developing mindfulness and contemplating on the body and the mind. This is composed of vipassana yana (insight knowledge). People who do not practice will not have this kind of wisdom. It also has different effects. Rebirth will be from three causes; the mind will be without greed, hatred and delusion. One who is born without all three of these causes (ti hetu) will have a chance to be enlightened or at least gain some insight within this lifetime. If you make merit without understanding you will be born with delusion, or lack only two causes (without greed and hatred). The result being that you would have a chance to practice but not gain full insight or be liberated. If someone who has good intentions to make merit but then becomes upset or has regrets after that moment, it means that he/she has hatred or greed. The merit will also be affected. So the intention and condition of the mind will determine the result of the merit. This is why listening to or studying the dhamma as well as practicing meditation is very valuable.

There was a story about a man who was born with unattractive, ugly features. He could not find a job, so he ended up joining a gang of robbers. They had killed many, and had caused a lot of chaos – to the point where the king had to catch all 500 of them. They were all supposed to be executed, but the king did not have enough executioners because there were so many robbers. The chief robber was offered freedom in exchange for killing the rest, but he refused. The ugly man volunteered for the job and was appointed as the executioner, which he did and stayed with until he retired. On the day of his retirement, he felt he needed to clean up since he had been contaminated with blood for many years. So he asked his wife to prepare a nice meal, washed himself, and dressed up. As he was ready to start his meal, Venerable Sariputta showed up with his alms bowl. This man felt inspired, since for all of his life he had only committed unwholesome acts that took so many lives and created so much suffering. He had a meal that was well prepared and the monk was there, so he invited Ven. Sariputta to receive the alms. After the meal, Ven. Sariputta gave a blessing and a dhamma talk. This man could not sit still, was so restless and could not listen to the dhamma. Ven. Sariputta asked him why he could not sit still. He replied that he had committed a lot of sins by being a robber and had also been an executioner, killing so many people. Ven. Sariputta asked him when he killed others, did he want to do it, or he was ordered to do so? His answer was that he was ordered to do it. So the venerable asked him how that could affect him. The man listened carefully, and felt relieved. His mind was settled and he was able to listen to the dhamma and thus gain some insight. Soon after he passed away and was reborn in the heavenly realm. He was able to escape from being born into the lower realm.

Whatever acts one commits, they will have an effect on the mind at the time of death. This is why it is customary in Buddhist countries to advise the dying to do merit-making, to remind them to be mindful and to reflect on the triple gems (the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha), or to think about previous wholesome acts. This will lead them to be born into the higher realms. One person once asked me, since he was turning 40 and had done many bad things, would he still have the time to correct them? This story has been a good example for him. Only one day is enough to turn things around. This person still has time to change. So a meritorious deed that has an effect at the time of death is very crucial, unless one has serious negative kamma, such as killing ones parents, killing the arahats, hurting the Buddha, or causing a schism in the sangha. In that case, no merit can help.

We are fortunate to be able to practice the dhamma, learn the path and know how to practice. What is left is up to us – to start working on the path, to put effort into developing mindfulness and contemplating the body and mind. You can follow the steps of the practice by first using pannatti to settle the mind, then focusing on paramattha in one location. After that, expand your observation to cover the entire body, also being aware of the mind. At the end is letting go. Gaining vipassana insight means that you have stepped up to the path of nibbana. You have come the right way, and it is the only way to the liberation from and ending of suffering. There is no other way that will lead to nibbana. There are no enlightened persons (arahat) in other teachings. The Buddha once responded to the question of whether there were other enlightened persons, in other religions. His response was that only the ones that have the teachings of the practice – the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the noble eightfold paths – can be lead to the magga, phala and nibbana. The other practices will not reach that goal. They will only divert to pannatti or conventional truth. There are other teachings of tranquility meditation that exist. However, to gain insight and cut through defilements, you have to practice mindfulness, observing the body and mind, or the paramattha dhamma. This way is the one and only way.

You are fortunate to be born with a chance to hear the teaching, and even more fortunate to have the chance to practice the correct way. It is the most valuable treasure in this life, more than anything you could possibly own. The rest is to try to understand clearly and practice diligently.

This is the end of the talk. I wish you all happiness, and progress in the dhamma.

Photo courtesy of hewy.

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