“ Solitude can be sought and found in the routine of the simple world, in which one can be alone in one's heart.”
- Henri Nouwen
Spring into Meditation
Vipassanā Fellowship's next 12 week session of the well-established online meditation course begins in April and registration for standard places is available now. The course is an opportunity to learn to meditate or to refresh and deepen an existing practice. We focus on developing a fruitful and sustainable meditation practice inspired by over 2,500 years of tradition but appropriate for today's lives in many cultural contexts. Many people have found it to be an inspiring and supportive way to begin a new year of practice.
The courses have been offered since 1997 and serve as a practical introduction to samatha (tranquillity or serenity) and vipassanā (insight) techniques. Intended primarily for beginners - of any faith or none - the course is also suitable for experienced meditators who wish to explore different aspects of the tradition. The emphasis is on building a balanced meditation practice that is compatible with home life.
The course offers daily material for each of the 12 weeks, interaction between participants and support from the tutor. Participants also have access to audio guided meditations and chants to support the text. The course will be led by UK based meditation teacher Andrew Quernmore, a meditator with more than 35 years' experience.
The course begins on April 9th and ends on July 1st. Application details and further information is available here:
Each month our Parisa members focus on a particular topic from the tradition. Over the year we cover practical meditation, cultural background and philosophical topics to help nourish our ongoing daily meditation practice. Parisa is a dispersed community of dedicated meditators around the world who have come together through engaging in one of Vipassana Fellowship's 12 week meditation courses.
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Do It Yourself
By Ven. Henepola Gunaratna
During the twenty-five years that Venerable Ananda, the Buddha’s personal attendant, spent with the Buddha, several times the Buddha asked him to strive hard and attain enlightenment. Ananda knew all the Dhamma teachings and theories of meditation, but because he enjoyed serving the Buddha and other fellow bhikkhus, he neglected his own attainment of enlightenment. After the Buddha’s passing away, the Arahants that had assembled to hold the first Buddhist council urged Ananda to attain enlightenment before the designated date of the council as only Arahants could attend. Ananda then practiced meditation and attained enlightenment just before the council.
The Buddha said: “Monks, meditate! Don’t be heedless. Don’t let your mind be filled with defilements” (Dhp 371). He meant that the mind that has not been developed through the practice of mindfulness meditation is full of tension, anxiety and worry. So don’t keep repeating the same mistakes and keep crying. You cannot run away from reality. Life is not rosy. It has ups-and-downs and bumps all over. These are facts we face every day.
The practice of mindfulness meditation is similar to the shock absorbers of a car. If the shock absorbers are not good, there will be difficulties when driving over bumps. Likewise, this vehicle of ours—the combination of the body and mind—encounters many impediments and difficulties if there is no strong mindfulness.
People mostly come up with three solutions to deal with the impediments:
The first solution is to perceive the problem as being “over there, in the world” and therefore think that by correcting the world, trying to solve society’s ills, we can solve our own problems. We think that only when our environment is proper, beautiful and free from problems, we can live happily. So we get engrossed and, sometimes, even obsessed, in trying to straighten out society. Of course, the desire to improve society’s ills, itself, is commendable. Seeing suffering, we act out of compassion and may keep ourselves fully occupied trying to correct the society’s ills. We might think that we keep ourselves out of trouble without realizing that we actually are forgetting our own nagging problems. Our own pains and suffering continue unattended because we do not have time for ourselves. Engaging in external activities might hinder solving our own problems.
Although we live in society with people, each one of us has a little world of our own. Each of us follows our own perceptions and views of the world. We may sometimes think that all the problems we experience are generated from the outer world. Therefore, we turn our energies to the world believing that correcting society will solve our problems.
People with this attitude can be very compassionate, understanding, and ready to render their service to society selflessly and without expecting any reward. We read many wonderful accounts of many such noble persons who at the expense of their own attainment of enlightenment dedicate their lives to society.
The second way to solve our problems is to think that there is no problem at all, to believe that everything is imaginary, and to think: “I exist by myself, I am most important, and I am all alone, and nothing else matters to me.”
The third way to solve personal problems is to run away from them. There is, however, no place to run away from difficulties. Even if we go to the moon (not an impossibility these days), still we will go with our body and mind filled with all kinds of mental impediments and defilements. We cannot leave them here and go over there. The impediments follow persistently and doggedly wherever we go, and they keep bothering us, day and night. We can also ignore problems by diverting our attention to something else, by distracting ourselves, but the problems do not disappear in this way.
So we may receive temporary solace, temporary comfort thinking that the problem exists over there in the external world or that it does not exist, or we may run away from the problem, diverting our attention to something, but the real solution lies in none of these methods. The real solution, according to the Buddha, is to discover the way to purify the instrument, the agent, which makes the world happy or unhappy, peaceful or miserable, pleasant or painful—that which creates problems and suffering for everybody. This instrument is our mind. Purification of this mind is one of the five purposes of mindfulness meditation.
As we all know, all our thoughts, words and deeds originate in the mind; the mind is their forerunner. All conditions we experience are mind-made. They are created in the mind, directed and led by the mind; mind puts them into action. As the Buddha said: “All actions are all led by the mind: mind is their master, mind is their maker. Act or speak with a defiled state of mind, then suffering follows like the cart-wheel that follows the foot of the ox. All actions are all led by the mind; mind is their master, mind is their maker. Act or speak with a pure state of mind, then happiness follows like a shadow that remains behind without departing.” (Dhammapada 1–2)
The analogy of the ox pulling the cart is most appropriate to illustrate our problems. The ox pulling the cart does not enjoy pulling the cart. It is not happy with this burden; pulling it is not a pleasure. The whole burden of the cart is on its shoulders, and it is in pain. The ox would have done better if it had not been born as an ox. The condition of the ox is compared to the condition of ignorance, and stupidity—not seeing the true nature of things. The life of an unenlightened person is full of ignorance and given to defilements of all kinds. Therefore, an unenlightened person committing thoughts, words, and deeds with an impure mind suffers, just like the ox which suffers by pulling the heavy cart. On the other hand, when a person speaks or does something with a pure mind, he or she feels happy and has no regrets—no pain and suffering will follow.
Our purpose in life is to improve ourselves and become happy. However, most of the things we do to gain happiness may generate unhappiness, pain, suffering and trouble because our minds are not pure. It is only the pure mind that can generate happiness, not the impure mind. Therefore, the first purpose of practicing meditation is to purify our mind because a pure mind generates peace and happiness.
The second purpose of meditation is to overcome sorrow and lamentation. When we begin to see the truth through meditation, we can bear and conquer the sorrow and lamentation caused by impermanence.
The third purpose is to overcome suffering and disappointment caused by greed and hatred.
The fourth purpose is to tread the wise path, the correct path which leads to liberation from grief, sorrow, disappointment, pain and lamentation. This is the path of mindfulness—the only path that can liberate us from suffering.
The fifth purpose of meditation is to completely and totally liberate our minds from mental pain and defilements and to completely free our minds from greed, hatred and delusion.
These five purposes are very noble purposes. All other purposes of meditation may be overlooked because none of them is capable of generating these results that make us really peaceful and happy by eliminating our problems. We don’t try to ignore or avoid problems but we face and tackle them with mindfulness as they arise in our minds.
Certain people simply want to meditate without having any background knowledge of meditation. They think knowledge of the theory of meditation is an impediment. This attitude can be compared to the attitude of a traveler who wishes to go to a definite destination—let us say Washington DC. The traveler has great confidence in his ability and believes his confidence alone is sufficient to get him there with his car. However, he does not prepare himself for the journey; he has no knowledge of the roads or the conditions of the roads or of the weather; he hasn’t even consulted a map. All he has is a car, confidence and some experience in driving. The car may carry a sufficient quantity of gas, oil, and other items to get him to his destination. Getting into his car, he starts to drive. He may be on the road for a long time spending a good deal of money on gas, time and energy. Indeed, driving will lead him somewhere, but not necessarily to his destination.
A wise driver, on the other hand, studies the map in detail beforehand, determines the detours, and may ask others who are more experienced. If this wise driver wishes to go to Washington DC and if there is a place called Washington DC, he will find it.
Similarly, we need to have a goal in meditation. We want to reach this goal and realize our purpose. And we do need some guidelines. We do not necessarily need a great deal of philosophical and speculative theory. The guidelines are road signs to follow so that we will know (not guess) if we are heading in the right direction. Certainly confidence is necessary, but, in itself, it is not sufficient. In addition, we need understanding and knowledge of the theory.
Then what is meditation? How do we reach this goal of purifying the mind, overcoming grief and lamentation, overcoming pain and disappointment, treading the path leading to liberation from pain and suffering, from samsara—this world of birth and death?
There is a way to attain it. When we refer to “the Way” it may turn many people off. They might think the speaker is trying to sell something and trying to deprecate everything in the world, and might think “If this is the only way, we are not prepared to buy it.” Now, when you wish to go to Washington DC, there are a number of ways to get there. Flying is the quickest way these days, of course. In other times, we would use a car or boat, or only our two feet. Whatever the means of transportation, we have to cover a specific distance to arrive in Washington DC. What is essential is that we get there—whether by slow or fast means. Therefore, “the Way” means “The Way of Mindfulness” that transverses a certain distance or area to realize our destination.
This Way of Mindfulness does not, however, lie in a geographical area or in space. It is in our own mind. We have to do certain things. That doing is “the Way”—the way to cultivate our minds to accomplish this journey. Cultivating the mind means practicing mindfulness. When no mindfulness is present, when we are unmindful all the time, we are entrapped by “red herrings.” We are caught in all kinds of confusion; we don’t understand things as they really are. To enable us to get to our destination, we need a clear understanding of where we are. Clear understanding is born from mindfulness. Through clear understanding we learn that although the other things and practices we engage in have their own purposes and goals, they do not purify the mind.
The very word used for meditation in the language of the Buddha, bhavana, means cultivation. We know what we mean when we say, “We cultivate a land.” We know that there has to be a land and some means of cultivating it. We have to do certain things, such as cutting down the trees to clear the land, remove weeds and other things, and till it over and over and fertilize it. Then we can plant seeds and nourish it and grow certain crops. Similarly in the practice of meditation, we need to mentally cultivate the mind. We do not sit in one place just waiting for something to happen, because we may wait for a very long time without anything happening. We might say that we have spent so much time in meditation, but sitting in one place doing nothing is not meditation. And also simply watching our breath all the time is inadequate and insufficient. Although just watching the breath without right mindfulness may be called the practice of tranquillity meditation, it is not right concentration as there is no right mindfulness. Of course, mindfulness of breathing, anapanasati, is an important part of meditation. We begin meditating with watching our breath. The right mindfulness meditation which is totally distinct to Buddhism is called vipassana meditation or insight meditation. When we do insight meditation, we see impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and selflessness in our body and minds. The guidelines for the practice of insight meditation are given in the Sutta on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Satipatthana Sutta. The four foundations of mindfulness are: mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of feeling, mindfulness of the mind and mindfulness of mental objects.
Let me take the first foundation—mindfulness of the body. Mindfulness of the body is divided into six sections. The first of them is mindfulness of breathing. Now, why is the breath included in the mindfulness of the body? The breath is a part of our body. This body, as we know it, is just made up of four basic elements: the element of earth (solidity, hardness), the element of water (cohesion, liquidity), the element of fire (heat) and the element of wind (movement, expansion). Therefore, when we try to practice mindfulness of the body, we begin with the mindfulness of the breath which is the element of wind.
In this mindfulness of the body meditation, we do not dwell upon some imaginative fairy land. We are not trying to induce self hypnosis. We are not trying to discover the hidden, mystical elements of the universe. We are not trying to become absorbed in the whole universe. We are not trying to become “One” with the whole universe. All these are interesting words, but when practising mindfulness of the body we are trying to use this very personality of ours, our own body and mind, and see it as truly is—impermanent, unsatisfactory and selfless. We watch mindfully this body and mind and their activities, we investigate them because they are what we carry with us wherever we go. This body and mind is our laboratory. All we have to work with is right here. The raw materials of earth, heat, wind, and water are all there in this body.
My laboratory is my body and mind. I always try to watch them within me. I cannot work in your laboratory. You have to work in your own laboratory. Most of us forget our own laboratories and try to get into somebody else’s laboratory. We try to see what so-and-so is eating, what so-and-so is doing, whom so-and-so is associating with, where so-and-so is going, what so-and-so is reading, how much money so-and-so has, etc. We always forget our own laboratories. We may never know what is in this laboratory within ourselves. We, in this practice of insight meditation, become introspective, mindful and careful to watch what is happening here in this mind and body, as it is, and in the present moment. That is what insight meditation is all about; methodical investigation in the laboratory within ourselves.
Ven. Henepola Gunaratana, (“Bhante G”) originally from Sri Lanka, is the founder and resident teacher of the Bhavana Society in West Virginia, USA. The above essay is an edited transcription of a talk given at the Bhavana Society.
Source: BPS, Kandy.
Extract from Newsletter 64.
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Image: Spring lambs near Llanddewi-Brefi. Photo: Roger Kidd. Wikimedia CC-BY-SA-2.0 edited.