INTRODUCTION TO A COURSE OF VIPASSANA MEDITATION
Vol. III, No. 3, 1956
Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma-Sambuddhassa
THIS introduction is for the meditator with a Western background who wishes to take a course of Vipassana Meditation at the Thathana Yeiktha (Mahasi Sasana Yeiktha), Rangoon. Its objects are to help the beginner to find the right attitude towards the Meditation itself and towards his meditation master, to explain, as far as is possible, certain things which may puzzle and irritate him. The quotations and illustrations given come without exception from practical experience and are things said and done by Western meditators.
Those who wish to meditate should for their own benefit first of all try to answer to themselves as honestly as possible the questions "Why do I wish to meditate ?— What do I wish to gain by it?" or "What is my aim as regards my own life, my own development ?" This is essential before one starts to meditate, for the foundation of Vipassana is Purity of Mind. If the aim of the meditator is not a lofty one, if he only wants "to find out all about it" out of mere curiosity, or if he wishes to attain so-called insight into the minds and hearts of his fellow-beings to increase his worldly success—if greed is the motive in this case—he may not succeed as well with his Meditation and will possibly give up during the first stages. But there are of course the exceptions who are able to correct their wrong approach to Vipassana by growing understanding during the course of Meditation itself. They will succeed in the end.
The Vipassana Meditation is the most sacred gift left to us by the greatest of all Teachers, the Buddha, in His infinite compassion. During His search for enlightenment he submitted himself to the guidance of the most advanced meditation masters and sages of His time. By becoming a master Himself in each of their systems, He recognised the inadequacy of all of them as a means for the attainment of full Enlightenment and the deliverance from suffering. One after the other He discarded them and went His own way of which He said:
"This is the only way for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana, namely the four foundations of mindfulness Should any person practise these four foundations of mindfulness in this manner then one of these two fruits may be expected by him Highest Knowledge, here and now, or if some remainder of clinging is yet present, the state of Non-returning. Because of all this it was said This is the only way ...."
It is better therefore, for a Buddhist or non- Buddhist to approach Vipassana Meditation with veneration or at least, respect.
Purity of Mind as far as the ordinary person can understand it, is obedience to one's conscience, to the so-called Inner Voice, which tells one what is right and what is wrong. For the lay-Buddhist during the course of his Meditation, it means the keeping of the eight precepts in their widest meaning. Of great importance, there must be the sincere longing to become and to be good in words, thoughts and deeds and to purify oneself of one's passions and defilements.
We know for certain that the Buddha had freed Himself from every impurity. Before we start meditating it is better therefore to turn our thoughts to Him and try to fathom His Purity. Though the Purity of a Buddha is beyond the comprehension of ordinary Man, everybody can grasp it up to a certain point and that already will be a great help in the struggle with one's own defilements.
To be good in the simple meaning of the word, to keep the precepts, is not an easy task. Some meditators will observe that of the eight precepts, the first not to kill, and the fourth not to lie, are difficult ones to keep. Killing, no matter what the object may be, human, animal or even only an insect—is always based on hatred, on the urge to destroy, one of the three roots of all Impurity of Mind.
Just as the keeping of the first precept goes far beyond the coarse act of killing and excludes even the slightest wish to destroy, no matter what object, so it is with the fourth precept, not to lie. Lying can occur in manifold disguises, for instance in withholding certain transgressions of rules or requests, or experiences from one's meditation master, which" of course is not a lie !"
Another type of Impurity of Mind which increases the difficulties of meditating and makes the progress towards one's aim more difficult is the idea that one knows already something or '' everything about it because one has been meditating for years, has read all the available literature and already had certain experiences of one's own of which one knows" exactly what they stand for ". It may be a comfort to hear that this attitude is equally common in the East as in the West, among the learned bhikkhus as well as the laity. The meditation master will refer to it as "considering ". As long as it lasts, one is in a deadlock and cannot easily progress. It is conceit rooted in delusion. There is only one right attitude the burning wish to learn, to try to understand word for word what the meditation master says and to be determined to carry it out, as far as one is able to do so, without criticising or asking why. In other words a complete surrender to the advice of the master is needed.
It is possible for some uneducated people, illiterates and children who have a degree of inborn wisdom to find comparatively little difficulty and to progress easily. But education and learnedness by themselves are no handicap, it is only the conceit which some times accompanies mere knowledge, particularly in the case of the so-called intellectual. The truly educated and wise person is fundamentally humble he will soon recognise his various forms of conceit and discard them.
As long as the mind of the meditator is not sufficiently purified he will find many things which are in his opinion "most trying" or "quite unnecessary and exasperating ". There are for instance the requests neither to read nor to write and to have as little conversation as possible and not to leave the Thathana Yeiktha without special permission. To many meditators this seems to be " an unnecessary hardship ". But if they hear about the strict training rules of a boxer or an athlete who intends to win a championship, they seem very reasonable and essential to the boxer's fitness. Meditating is only possible if the mind is disciplined and kept away from the usual uncontrolled way of thinking. Reading and writing, foolish babble and going for a walk are just as bad for it as alcohol and nicotine for a future sports champion.
Another thing which provides a stumbling block is the so-called secretiveness of the meditation master. He will hardly explain a thing just when the meditator believes "it is his right to know what is happening" and feels that" he cannot progress, because things are not explained to him" and so on. Here it might help to think about the relationship between a person who has decided to undergo a major operation and his surgeon in whose capacity and skill he has full confidence. Does he expect the surgeon to give him in advance the exact detail of every cut that is going to be made ? Or would he like to be brought back into consciousness for a few moments during the operation, only to be told what has been done to him so-far ? Would he be able to understand the medical terms and the whole procedure ?—No, under ordinary circumstances the patient will never know any details of the operation, except that a diseased part of his body has been removed.
As regards the need for full confidence the patient and the meditator are in a similar position. But there is the fundamental difference all the same, that the meditator, after a successful course will know and understand every detail of his experiences, and he will be able to co-ordinate them with the help of his meditation master who is no longer "full of secretiveness ". He will also under stand why certain things could not be explained to him earlier. Words and particularly concepts have for each person different meanings and associations. We use words like "body" and "mind" in everyday language and we "know" what we mean by them. But using the same words, Mind and Body but in connection with the Buddhist teaching of reality—Nama-Rupa—we become fully aware that they stand for something quite different from what they meant before. Unfortunately we are very often too easily convinced that we know what the Buddha meant by them and forget that all real understanding is entirely based on experience. If a person has not lived mentally and physically through the experience of Nama-Rupa it is useless to try to make him understand Reality. In the case of a meditator it is not only useless but positively harmful to explain to him during the course his past, present or future experiences. This would only provide him with something to think about, something to guide his thoughts in certain directions, and he will anticipate certain experiences.
The beginning of the beginning of Meditation is the process of emptying one's mind of all thoughts. In a sense it is impossible not to think; but there are two different ways of thought. The first way is our ordinary way of thinking, to think ABOUT things from a personal point of view, to judge in accordance with our own ideas of what is wrong and what is right, to search for a reason, an excuse, an explanation, to compare, to lose oneself in memories, to speculate about the future, and many other ways. All this and every other type of thinking on similar lines is constantly referred to as "Considering" though the term is very inadequate. This considering is one of the great obstacles and as long as it lasts meditation is made impossible.
The second way of thinking is only to observe and only to register a chosen object— the object by itself, without any "surrounding" so to speak, and without giving way to any thought of the considering type which might arise. This and this alone is the right functioning of the mind. It should be practised every minute of the day, from the first thought in the morning at awakening to the last before falling asleep. This is Mindfulness —Sati—and its four foundations, the objects which one has to observe and to register are the functions of one's own body, the pleasant or unpleasant feelings which arise, the function of the mind and the mental objects or images which arise. These four objects have to be observed and registered at their moment of arising, that is to say in the present.
As Mindfulness is of paramount importance for the attainment of Vipassana, of Insight, as many details as possible are given in connection with the exercises. At this point the aim is to make quite clear the fundamental difference between ordinary thought, which constantly oscillates between the Past and the Future, and Mindfulness which is always in the Present.
To give an illustration a person tries to meditate. At first everything is perfectly quiet. Suddenly a dog howls, then a loud speaker starts and later on the sound of approaching footsteps is heard. If one registers each of these noises by naming and thinking about them one will immediately get caught up in a labyrinth of uncontrolled thoughts and emotions. The dog's howl leads to pity for the suffering animal, to the assumption that someone has hurt it, and may be to anger. If a pleasant melody comes through the loudspeaker one may even enjoy it for the moment and forget that one wishes to meditate. Memories of the past may arise ; if it is unpleasant, one gets angry.
"How shall I meditate !" The footsteps make one curious as to "who is coming ?— is it a visitor for me ?"
But if one thinks in the second way, one does not observe the Dog's Howl, or the Noise of the Loudspeaker, or the Footsteps. One observes and registers only the most outstanding function of the body at the moment i.e., under the circumstances, Hearing. Holding on with a certain amount of gentle intensity to the observing and registering of hearing one is no longer disturbed, nor does one get angry, one does not feel frustrated in one's effort to meditate, one does not think about what has happened or might have happened or will happen, in fact one has achieved the beginning of Mindfulness. One lives no longer in the past or in the future, one is in the present.
With the attainment of Mindfulness the actual process of Meditation begins. There is nothing " occult " or " supernatural about meditation. It is part of a mental culture which the East has been practising for thousands of years.
There are very many different methods of Meditation, just as there are in the West many different ways for training the body. Meditation for its own sake is of some value, but when it is used as a means to an end it produces its great effect. And again the "quality" of the effect, its value, its wholesomeness or unwholesomeness, Kusala or Akusala, depends entirely on the ultimate aim of the meditator and on his Purity of Mind. As this is not the place to compare the different methods of Meditation, their objects and aims, I shall only remind the meditator that the aim and object of Vipassana is to understand through one's own mental and physical experiences the Law of Conditioned Origination and the Four Noble Truths which embody the Law of Impermanence, the Law of Suffering and the experience and realisation of Anatta—Non-Self.
How far a meditator will be able to penetrate into these ultimate Truths depends, as has already been emphasised, on his Purity of Mind, and, based on that, his capacity to establish the right equilibrium, the perfect harmony, of five forces:
(1) Saddha—unshakable confidence in the Buddha as the most perfect human being and Greatest of all Teachers, but not blind belief, nor clinging to Him and asking Him for personal help in the way the Christian turns to God. The Buddha emphasised more than once that He was only a teacher who showed the way, the Only Way which everybody has to go alone by himself without any help from God or Man, taking on himself consciously the full responsibility for every thought, word and deed.
(2) Viriya—energy, determination, persistence to succeed in ones s aim;
(3) Sati—Mindfulness—of which one can never have enough;
(4) Samadhi—right concentration, not what the West very often calls concentration in the sense of forcing the mind and getting into a state of mental tenseness
(5) Panna—Wisdom, which is needed in distinguishing between right and wrong meditation, between experiences which are products of one's own body and mind and the experience of the Realities, and which enables one later on to co-ordinate the details.
Energy, concentration, confidence and wisdom must be in perfect harmony. If one of them is too strong or too weak it becomes an obstacle. Thus the lack of confidence can lead to doubt and, with it, to worry and rest lessness which make progress impossible. Or if confidence is too strong the personal effort is weakened, because a person may expect the Buddha to provide him with the necessary energy. Wisdom and confidence rightly balanced will prevent the meditator from being too fascinated or too delighted or, on the other hand, terrified and frightened by certain experiences which may arise.
Here we have to mention that the Vipassana Method does not encourage "images nor "living in the astral sphere" nor "contact with the realm of the Gods ". Nevertheless, what the West often regards as " occult experiences" will occur. Only they are by no means occult or supernatural ; they should neither be hailed as great achievements nor regarded as something evil, something to be shunned. They should be calmly observed and registered for what they are,— images of the mind, feelings or bodily functions, like hearing or seeing. They have to be reported to the meditation master as accurately as possible, because for him they are symptoms of certain stages through which every meditator must pass during his course.
It should by now be clear that meditating does not mean "to contact one's sub-conscious" or "to merge in to it "; nor does it mean to concentrate on one concept or word like "insight" and "to let the thoughts run over it like a stream over a pebble ".
To summarise: Vipassana Meditation begins with Mindfulness by which one observes and registers one of the four objects of Mindfulness which at the same time are the objects of Meditation : bodily functions, feelings, mental functions, and mental objects or images, one after the other, taking as one's object whatever is most conspicuous at the moment. With the essential determination or energy in pursuing observation and registration, fewer and fewer objects will arise until one only is left, on which the concentrated mind rests steadily and peacefully. This may be followed by higher stages which the meditator has to find out for himself, by experience.
There is one last point to be made. Many Westerners have the wrong idea that meditating is a peaceful occupation, a kind of a rest-cure. A Burman said: "Meditating is like swimming against the strong current of a river, as soon as one relaxes for a second one loses ground and gets driven back to where one came from. Only if one exerts oneself to the utmost can one reach the aim."
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