Vipassana Meditation in a Layman's Life

By Dr. Khin Tun, MRCP(UK)

(A Talk given on 22nd November 1998 to celebrate Venerable Dhammasami's 34 th Birthday at Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre, Kingsbury, London)

Birthdays are the reminders of the start of this very life where your body and mind start to decay immediately and relentlessly, like a candle burning away with time. For the majority of living beings, life seems to be stable, satisfactory and under control. Like the candle light continuously glowing, it looks stable and never changing. What is sure is the rapid sequences of forming, decay and disappearance of the physical and mental sensations occuring with every split second, minute, hour, day and night, year after year finally resulting in apparent ageing, illness and death.

Lord Buddha, himself, had to suffer the decay and illness and just before he left this world, he reminded his disciples the most important thing to be noticed with care and to practice. "Sabbe Sankhara Dukkha, Appamadena Sampadetha", i.e. all life phenomena are unsatisfactory; be heedful and practice without forgetting to be mindful.

For the forgetful persons, time burns away his life. At the end nothing substantial is left from being alive. For those who are mindful, they burn the time in a meaningful way effectively and their wisdom grows.

There are 3 kinds of learning to expand your knowledge. Learning from others, thinking for yourself and the experiential wisdom. For example, if you have a lump of sugar, and does not know the nature of it, you could learn from others, who may or may not have tasted the sugar themselves that sugar is sweet. You could think for yourself how sweet the sugar could be according to your past personal experience of other sweet things like honey, mango or melon. But putting the sugar onto your tongue will give you the experiential knowledge beyond the words and descriptions.

I would like to tell some of my experience. I was born and brought up by my parents as a traditional Buddhist. I was taught how to say prayers, how to donate food and robes to the respectful monks, learnt about the Buddha's life and how he strived for the middle way to become enlightened about the law of nature, the cause and effect, the highest attainment being Nibbana which could only be experienced and is beyond the descriptive means of the sensual World.

I was temporarily ordained as a novice monk when I was 9 years old after the death of my paternal grandfather. I had to stay with an elderly monk and learnt the way of life of the monks, the discipline and their needs. When I was 17, as a second year medical student, I had a chance to practice Vipassana meditation, under the guidance of the Venerable Ashin Janakabhivamsa, also known as" Chanmyay Yeiktha Sayadaw", in Rangoon, Burma. The initial 10 days followed by another 32 days of intensive meditation became the most precious time of my life.

Chanmyay Sayadaw was born in Taungdwingyi, in upper Burma and became a young Buddhist monk and studied Buddhist scriptures and passed the trainers' examination while he was residing in Mandalay. He came to Rangoon and practiced intensive Vipassana meditation under the guidance of the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw, who was one of the principal monks at the 6th Buddhist Council, held in Burma in 1956. Chanmyay Sayadaw had also learnt Buddhism in Sri Lanka for 5 years before he became Vipassana Instructor at various Mahasi meditation centres in Burma.

I was given a room to stay and was instructed to meditate as soon as I woke up in the morning (around 3:30 AM), to be consciously aware of the most prominent of all the physical movements and sensations, posture, thoughts and intentions, feelings and states of mind , continuously without breaks till I slept at night (around 10 PM).

I was shown how to make each movement slowly, concentrating the changing intentions and sensations from moment to moment. I was told to do walking meditation for about an hour before each sitting meditation which last from 30 minutes to an hour. I was also reminded to keep my vision downwards to lessen visual distractions. In between the two main postures I was supposed to be aware of the standing, touching, moving, eating, tasting, drinking, washing, bathing, toiletting, dressing, looking, speaking, hearing, joy, boredom, hunger, thirst, breathing, smelling, liking, disliking, wanting, lightness, heaviness, stiffness, softness, heat, cold, motion, tension, relaxation, pain, itching, blinking, swallowing, straightening your posture, etc.

The main principle is to be aware of the most apparent sensation, as it occurs, as it is, precisely, deeply with a right amount of effort so that one would not be too tired but enough to continue the continuity of concentration.

In the beginning, the mind wanders, the discomfort and pains become more frequent than before. The wish to stop meditation can occur. Doubts about the teacher, the method, the goal can occur. Increasing effort might be put in only to find out that you become frustrated or tired. Sensations and thoughts may be felt too many and too much to follow, one after another, never ending.

When sitting, noticing the rising and falling of tension around the abdomen as you breathe in and out can be useful as a primary focus of attention when other stronger sensations are not overriding. Awareness of stiffness of the back, the pressure felt at the bottom touching the mat or cushion can be added for primary focus if a time space is found between the breathing movements.

When walking, it should be like a slow march. Start at one end of the room, facing towards the path to walk. Note standing sensation for about 3 seconds. Hold the hands together in front or behind so that they would not swing and distract the attention. Then note the intension to move one of the feet forward, lifting, pushing, dropping, touching and concentrate on another foot in the same way to do another step. Your vision should be about 6 feet forward, without looking at your feet. At the end of the path, note the intention to stop, note that the motion has stopped, note the standing posture for about 3 seconds, then note the intention to turn, note the motion of turning in 6 small steps before facing back towards the path to walk back.

In about 3-5 days, the concentration becomes more continuous, intruding thoughts become less, the mind becomes more clear and alert and will feel the energy to continue meditating improving. The awareness of sensations becomes more fine and amplified. Ability to note the whole depth and breath of each sensation as it occur becomes more sharp.

Naturally, you will notice rising and falling of tension like a circle with a small gaps when the tension changes, each small segment is preceded by a small intention to breathe in or out, followed by the sensation of motion. Sometimes, deep absorption makes you feel like a bag of air inflating and deflating, floating without being aware of the head and limbs. You will discover that there is no permanent sensation but only a succession of physical and mental sensations touching your sensual doors.

With every foot steps, you will notice the intention to move is followed by a flow of motion, followed by similar cycles. Intention to stop will cause reduction and disappearance of motion. Intention to turn will push you around like a magnet. Your foot steps will become almost automatic, very regular in pace. Sometimes the footsteps will be light but at other times it could be very heavy to lift or move. If you could find a correct balance of effort and concentration, you will start to enjoy the process of noticing every single motion and sensation without getting tired or bored.

It is said to be like rubbing the two sticks to produce sparks in the ancient times. Although you do not know when the spark will come, if you have enough confidence balanced with knowledge, concentration balanced with perseverance, at one point you will suddenly realise the truth of nature, as it always has been, as always is and will always will be. You will feel that you have understood very clearly and has come out of a maze. You will like to tell your discovery to your parents, relatives and friends to encourage them to try the similar path of Vipassana meditation.

It will become clear that apart from physical and mental sensations there is nothing more in life. These physical and mental sensations, although different and separate, are interconnected between each other as cause and effect. Good intentions result in good deeds. Good actions result in joy, peace and positive mental states. Bad intentions cause bad action which result in sorrow, regret and negative mental states. These cycles of cause and effect will continue on and on, relentlessly, sometimes good and sometimes bad, difficult to control the results if you are not aware of the cause through active mindfulness.

You will also noticed that physical and mental senses are bombarded by light, sounds, smells tastes, touch pain temperature, motion, tension, thoughts, feelings, intentions and wishes. They are in a state of flux, always changing very fast. There is nothing permanent to cling on. You will not be able to find satisfaction with each sensation as it immediately disappear once noticed. You feel out of control, difficult to steer, unable to stop.

These insights and realisation comes naturally. You should not think ahead, look backward or get attached to the good sensations that comes with meditation. You should concentrate only what is happening at that very moment.

This middle way, noble eight fold path, mindful guarding of the six senses has been practised by the Buddha and his disciples and many generations of learned elders for over 2500 years. You are now at the beginning of this path. If you have done good deeds in the past and have wished Nibbana, continue walking on this path with confidence. As the wisdom naturally grows and mature you will realise what the Buddha has practiced and experienced, the ultimate truth, the end of tiresome cycles of life, decay, death and suffering, the NIBBANA.

I would like to thank Venerable U Dhammasami and Senior monks from Kingsbury Buddhist Monastery, for allowing and guidance to continue practising Vipassana meditation and to present this short talk today.

May you all be free from sorrow, grief and suffering and obtain your desired goals in this very life.

Dr. Peter Khin Tun, MBBS (Rgn), MRCP (UK).

Glossary of Terms

*Samsara. The cycle of craving and suffering caused by ignorance of ultimate truth and universal impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and absence of self.

*Bhavana: mental development, or mindfulness meditation

* Samatha-yanika (Initial cultivation of concentration followed by mindfulness)

*Vipassana yanika (Mindfulness from the very beginning- khanika samadi and apana samadi: transient and deep concentration)

*Noble Eight Fold Path - The middle way.

*Vipassana: seeing through various modes. The energetic observation of mental and physical objects in their aspect of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and lack of self.

*Four foundations of mindfulness - 1. physical 2. feelings 3. mind 4. objects of mind.

*Four postures- 1. lying 2. sitting 3. standing 4. walking

* Five benefits of walking meditation- stamina for long journeys, energy for meditation, good health, assist digestion, durable concentration.

*Six sense doors- Eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind

*Seven results of mindfulness:

  1. Purification of mind
  2. overcoming of sorrow
  3. overcoming of lamentation
  4. overcoming of physical pain
  5. overcoming of mental displeasure
  6. Reaching the right path
  7. Realisation of Nibbana

*Anicca: impermanence.

*Dukkha: unsatisfactoriness, suffering, pain.

*Anatta: the absence of inherent or independent self, lack of self essence, unresponsiveness to wish.

*Nibbana: The unconditioned, perfectly undefiled state that is neither mind nor matter.

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