Buddhist Meditation

Dhamma Master Ven. Punnaji

Buddhist meditation, as we teach it, is not a mystical practice; we are not teaching people to become mystics. This technique of meditation is for people who are living a secular life as householders, workers, having responsibilities, and who are involved in various relationships. What such people need is freedom from stress. They need peace of mind, healthy relationships, self-confidence, success in life, and efficiency at work. This means learning to gain control over the emotions that prevent one from thinking rationally or acting intelligently. These problematic emotional excitements come in the form of anger, lust, worries, fears, and anxieties. The form of Buddhist meditation we teach helps one free the mind of emotional disturbances and help one to think clearly and act rationally.

This technique of meditation does not involve chanting mantras, exercises in concentration, or entering trance states. It involves effort to consciously purify and tranquilize the mind. When the mind is purified, one experiences an inner happiness, a physical comfort, and a kindness and compassion that one has never experienced before. The happiness that we refer to is not a state of emotional excitement. The kindness and compassion we teach is not based on attachment. The happiness we speak of is a tranquil state of the mind, and the kindness is a state of selflessness. As we understand, emotional excitement is not true happiness, and attachment is not true love. Happiness and kindness are attributes of the tranquil mind. Therefore this method of meditation is aimed at cultivating a relaxed body, and a calm mind, resulting in the experience of happiness and a kindness of heart.

You may have heard of the two terms - samatha and vipassana. Samatha is the cultivation of tranquillity, and vipassana is what is normally translated as insight.

Most people when they speak of samatha meditation, they think it is practicing concentration, but true samatha is not concentration. Concentration only leads to the hypnotic state. Samatha is not the practice self-hypnosis. Properly understood, samatha means purifying and calming the mind.

The term vipassana is also commonly misunderstood because it is usually translated as "insight". The term vipassana is commonly confused with the psychological meaning of the term "insight". In psychology, insight is understood as a sudden understanding of the solution to a problem. In psychotherapy it is understood as bringing to consciousness the unconscious motive of a conscious action. Vipassana, on the other hand, is the direct analytical awareness of the totality of experience at a given moment. Experience is the subjective aspect of the reaction of an organism to environmental stimulation. This reaction can be broadly analyzed into four parts: sensory perception, thinking, feeling, and acting. Vipassana, therefore, is to see this experience in its parts, as an impersonal process of activity.

There is also a philosophical meaning of the term vipassana. Experience is normally seen as the interaction between a subject and an object. The Buddha taught that the existence of a subject and an object is only an experience. Therefore experience precedes existence. Experience is the basis of existence. Experience is the ground on which existence lies. Normally, we not only experience existence but we are involved in it. We get involved by forming relationships between the subjects and the objects experienced. This involvement is painful (dukkha) because it is accompanied by muscular tension, which is uncomfortable until it is released in action. It is this temporary release of tension which is so pleasurable that it keeps us enthralled and enslaved to it.  The Buddha showed the way to freedom from this slavery and suffering by awakening from this dream of existence and relationship by learning to focus attention on the experience (dhamma) instead of existence (bhava). This paradigm shift resulting in the experience of impersonal experience and freedom from the experience of existence is the ultimate stage in the evolution of human consciousness, which is NIRVANA (bhava nirodho nibbanam) the sumum bonum of the Buddhist practice. Vipassana therefore is the cultivation of the awareness of experience instead of the awareness of existence. This definition of vipassana might be confusing at the beginning, but it will become clearer as one progresses in proper vipassana. The first step in meditation is to learn to purify the mind, which is the practice of tranquility (samatha) meditation.

Very often people refer to meditation as sitting. It needs to be emphasized here that as we see it, meditation is not sitting. Meditation is a mental process, not a physical one. Of course when you see a statue of the Buddha you often see the statue in a sitting position, but that doesn't mean that you have to become like a statue. That is not the aim of Buddhism. We are not trying to become like statues, but to stop trying to become anything. Meditation has to be seen in a different way. Meditation is a way of living. The main thing in Buddhist meditation is to practice what is called the "Super-normal Eight-fold Way". You may have read about it in books as the "Noble Eight-fold Path".

We find the former translation more meaningful. It is the term "ariya" which is usually translated as "noble." The Buddha used the term "ariya" to refer to a higher level of consciousness which could be developed through a proper practice. It is a level beyond the normal. It is more meaningful to translate it as "super-normal," rather than "noble." The aim of Buddhist meditation is to raise the human consciousness to a higher level of experience which is beyond the normal. Just as the aim of modern psychotherapy is to raise an abnormal person to a normal level of living, the aim of the Buddha was to bring the normal person to a super-normal level. It is very important to understand this distinction between "noble" and "supernormal." This is why we like to call Buddhist meditation a growth technique, rather than the practice of rules of conduct or the rituals of sitting or walking meditation. Therefore, the purpose of the practice of Buddhist meditation is to grow to a higher level of emotional maturity, beyond the normal, and to experience a degree of happiness and kindness beyond the normal. Buddhist meditation is a method of gaining emotional maturity through purification of the mind.

This process of growth takes place according to natural law and following a human technique. It doesn't happen automatically or through a supernatural power. We are not depending on any external aid, not even a teacher or guru. This practice is based on self-reliance. We must do it by ourselves. This is a "do-it-yourself" technique. In a sense, it is the development of will power, to control one’s irrational emotions.

Will power is not a special kind of mysterious power. It is a natural human potentiality we are born with, but one that has to be developed. Biologically speaking, the human being is a higher animal who has a more evolved brain, especially the fore-brain (the cerebrum). The difference between the human being and all the other animals is that all other animals are passively reacting to their environment. The human being has the capacity to delay the reaction to get sufficient time to think and decide which response to make in a given situation and respond rationally instead of emotionally. It is this power to choose the response that is called will power.  Unfortunately this will power is not fully developed at birth, it has to be developed consciously through a proper technique.

We are organisms born with senses: the eyes, the ears, nose, tongue, and the body. When the senses are stimulated, a reaction occurs in the organism as a whole. For example, when light falls upon the eye, sight occurs. This sight is only seeing a meaningless field of different intensities and varieties of color. Our next step is to make meaning out of what we see.  In doing so, we begin to see objects and their relationships.  Once an object is seen, it is interpreted as pleasant unpleasant or neutral. This interpretation is followed by an emotional reaction to what is seen, in the form of a desire, hatred, or fear. This emotional reaction is but an excitement accompanied by muscular tension and other changes in the body. This tension is experienced as discomfort, which compels us to seek release in action, to obtain what is desired, to get rid of what is hated, or to run away from what is feared. That is the completion of the reaction, which has three stages: the cognitive, affective, and active. The cognitive is just the seeing and the thinking part. The affective is the emotional excitement, or the feeling part. The release of tension in action is the active or behavioral part. Normally, all animals below the human level are passively reacting to their environment in this way. The human being has the capacity to delay the release of tension in action, to get sufficient time to decide which response to make in a given situation. By thinking rationally, the human being is able to decide upon the right response and make the proper response by acting rationally.

This ability to decide on the response and act rationally is what is called "will-power". The freedom to choose our actions rationally, and to behave as we want is what is called "free-will." Do we really have this ability to make a choice and to act rationally? Unfortunately, this ability to choose and act rationally is not a capacity that is fully developed in the normal human being. This is why we make so many stupid mistakes in life, about which we repent later.  Often we want to do something in the right way, but we find ourselves doing just the opposite. This is because our will-power has not been fully developed. Buddhist meditation, when properly practiced, is the way to develop our will-power.

This is what one learns from our lessons at the center and during our retreats. It is learning how to act rationally instead of emotionally.  One will be provided with the tools to work on oneself. Working on oneself is ones own job, not the teacher's.  The teacher's job is only to give the tools and the instructions.  Our hope is that you will be able to work on yourself and grow, evolve, and transform. The degree of transformation, and quality of life experienced is the measure of progress. What we look for is growth and transformation, not mere insight. This is why we do not call this method of meditation "insight meditation". We also do not expect visions or hallucinations of any kind. If what you gain from a retreat is only more will-power, and a sense of peace of mind, then you have won a degree of success.

It is very important to understand that this technique of meditation is a method of transforming oneself from a self-centered personality into a selfless one, by following the Supernormal Eight-fold Way. There are eight steps to be followed. They are as follows:

The first step is to acquire the harmonious perspective. The harmonious perspective is the perspective that brings about harmony internally and externally. This is a perspective, not mere a right view or right understanding. This is a different way of looking at life, yourself, the world, and your relationship to the world. It is seeing things in a different way, which does not create conflict internally or externally.

The first thing we must do is to understand that our emotions come in conflict with the reality of instability, pain, and impersonality. Our emotions seek pleasure and avoid pain. This means, they are seeking permanent pleasure. This is not possible because pleasure is impermanent and pain cannot be avoided altogether. Emotions are also possessive and self-centered. We do not really possess anything in the world because all relationships are impermanent. Our self-centeredness is futile because we can never really preserve a permanent identity or self, because we change constantly, both physically and mentally and we cannot avoid death. This pursuit of eternal pleasure and eternal life is base on blind emotions and not through clear thinking. It is important to understand that our emotions come in conflict with reality, and it is unwise to be carried away by them.  It is wiser to be dominated by reason than by emotion.

Let us consider a person who is attracted to money or wealth, he may  think that becoming wealthy is the greatest thing in the world. So he begins to earn wealth.  When he makes a loss he becomes terribly unhappy.  Another might think that social position is greater than wealth.  He might sacrifice wealth to gain social position.  When he loses his position he comes to great discomfort as a result.  Still another might believe that popularity is better than riches or even social position. The latter might sacrifice wealth and high social position to become popular and to secure a good name.  Such a person might be blamed and lose the good name some way or other, and as a result suffer much pain of mind.  Another person might think, "What is the use of popularity?", "What is the use of social recognition?", "What is the use of wealth?". "What I need is sensual pleasure and keep on enjoying sensual pleasure, thinking that is the greatest thing!". That person too will be thoroughly disappointed when he/she ceases to get the pleasures he/she craves for.   Different people have different ideas of what is good or great or superior. And according to each person's sense of values, each person will feel inferior, superior or equal. If we think that wealth is superior, then the moment we meet a wealthier person, we may begin to compare ourselves to them and feel inferior. Or if a person thinks that high social position is superior they may  feel inferior in the presence of any person who is greater in social position. Likewise, if a person thinks that popularity is the greatest thing; that person begins to feel inferior upon meeting a person who is more popular than himself or herself. If a person thinks that enjoying sensual pleasure is the greatest thing, then that person will feel inferior in the presence of some one that is enjoying more sensual pleasures. This is how people feel inferior or superior. This unhealthy, or worldly sense of values was shown by the Buddha to be something that only brings unhappiness, disappointment. frustration, sorrow, pain, anxieties, and worries.  The Buddha pointed out that happiness is to be sought not outside in wealth, status, popularity or sensual pleasures; but rather, inside.  This happiness within is inner peace, calm or tranquility of mind.  If one can understand that inner peace is the greatest thing in the world, then one will be feeling inferior only when we meet a calm person. And if we are really convinced that calmness is the greatest thing, we don't need tranquilizers because tranquilizers are needed only when you are not convinced that calmness is the greatest thing. You might think, "Becoming rich is greater, but still I need calm in order to reach that goal, so I will take a tranquilizer.".  It is our sense of values that makes us calm or not calm. You have heard the word "Nirvana" or "Nibbana" which is regarded as the greatest goal of the Buddhist. Some think that Nirvana is some kind of Heaven but that is not what Nirvana is. Nirvana simply means the Imperturbable Serenity of mind.  (nir is the negative prefix like the English "non," and vana means shaking). So "Nirvana" is the mind that is not shaken by anything "non-shaking," or the "Unshaken Mind."  It is a tranquility of mind which can never be disturbed. That is Nirvana. So if we think that Nirvana is the greatest thing in the world, then we become a Buddhist as a result. But if we don't think that Nirvana is the greatest thing, and that calmness is not the greatest thing in the world, then we will not be trying to achieve Nirvana and therefore we are not Buddhists.  Therefore one becomes a Buddhist or not by the sense of values, not by birth or baptism.

So our goal in life changes when our perspective changes. When our perspective changes our sense of values change. When our sense of values change our goal in life changes. When our goal in life changes our thoughts, speech, and actions will fall in line with this goal. You don't have to push yourself to meditate. Meditation will automatically happen to you because meditation is the means to the goal where you are trying to go. Your life is going in that direction. You don't have to make any effort. You don't have to make any resolution. You don't need to have will power to meditate. You don't have to force yourself to meditate. You don't have to say, "I don't have any time, I have to make time.". You don't have to say any of these things. You will automatically have time because that is what you want to do. If you really want to do something you will have time. You don't have time only when you are not really interested in doing something.