January 2018  -  Meditation Newsletter from Vipassanā Fellowship

"When you learn to listen to views different from your own, realising that they are not threatening but enlarging, then you have discovered the life-changing idea of argument for the sake of heaven." - Rabbi Sacks

Meditation Newsletter
Blooming flower

 

Last call for our New Year online course in Meditation

Vipassanā Fellowship's meditation course has been offered online for over 20 years.

The course runs for 10 weeks and our next session begins on January 13th 2018. It is a great way to begin the New Year with good intentions and a steadily developing meditation practice. Do join us.

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 session serves 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.

 

"After this course I have found my routine and style of meditation. I am able to seriously commit to my journey, and I am seeing beautiful and ever evolving results." - D, USA

 

Meditation can be joyful! It is sometimes approached as a heartless, mechanical, activity - a daily chore to be endured at all costs through gritted teeth.This is simply the wrong approach. On this course we take the middle way and integrate what might be called both "heart" and "head" practices directly from the advice given in the Pāli Canon.

The course offers daily material for each of the 10 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 January 13th and ends on March 23rd. Application details and further information is available here:

http://www.vipassana.com/course/

 

2018 Courses Announced

Having Taken the First Step

by M. O'C. Walshe

 

What does it feel like when one has fairly recently embarked on a course of Buddhism? The answers will vary a great deal, no doubt, but there ought to be some general characteristics and some problems common to the majority of “newborn” Buddhists in the West. Let us assume that you are a person who has quite recently, or within the last year or so, begun to take Buddhism seriously as a personal way of life. You may by now be just looking round a bit in your new mental surroundings and trying to take stock of what has happened, now that the first novelty of the situation has worn off. You have, I sincerely hope, tried to do a bit of meditation, though it would not surprise me in the least to hear that you have found this difficult and disappointing. If so, I would like to tell you straight away that you should not be discouraged. This is quite the normal thing. Meditation may seem disappointing and even almost useless for quite a long time, but if you persevere in it, results are bound to come. But these results may not be at all the sort of thing you expect. And you may not even be the person who first becomes aware of them. So press on regardless, and don’t look for results. If you can see the point of this piece of advice you have already in fact made useful progress. Insights often come very subtly.

 

People’s motives for taking up Buddhism may vary a great deal on the surface. But fundamentally you have probably come to it because, in one way or another, it seems to promise you security. If you haven’t realized before that this was a good part of your motive, you might usefully use your next meditation period trying to find out whether I was right or not. If you have realized this, then you may agree that you find the formula “I go to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha for refuge” strangely comforting. And so it should be in one way, even though fundamentally you have to learn to be “a refuge unto yourself.” This is perhaps the first of the many paradoxes you will encounter attempting to tread the Buddhist path.

 

Now if we consider this problem of security a little further, we soon find that we do indeed crave for it. The obvious reason is that we feel life frankly unnerving, in fact, insecure. Here, then, we find straight away two of the three “Marks of Existence”: all things are marked by impermanence and suffering. Because they—and we—are impermanent, they are frustrating, and cause us all kinds of anguish. Buddhism offers a way out of this situation by treading the Noble Eightfold Path. I am assuming that, having “taken the first step,” you are now familiar with the Four Noble Truths and the steps of this Path. So I just want to mention a few points which may arise at this stage. The first step of the path is known as Right Understanding or Right View. This is seeing things as they are. There are large areas of experience which we would much rather know nothing about. This is the origin of repression, to use a Freudian term which is misleadingly translated. The German for “repression” in the psychoanalytical sense is Verdrangung, “thrusting away.” It is really successful self-deception. Getting rid of our repressions is therefore not doing what we like, as seems to be popularly imagined, but ceasing to deceive ourselves.

 

Fundamentally, Buddhism is just a technique of self-undeception. This is not easy, though sometimes it may be fun. It needs some study of theory as well as practice. It is perfectly true that you never gain enlightenment by intellectual knowledge alone, but if you haven’t studied the theory to some extent you will almost certainly never be able to start properly on the practice. Before you can develop your intuition you must know what it is—or at least what it isn’t—and self-deception in this respect seems to come terribly easy to many people. Intuition, or as I much prefer to call it, insight, is not an emotion, but the best way to develop it is by getting to know one’s emotions as thoroughly as possible. When these emotions have been really seen for what are, they no longer stand in the light. Now the biggest emotional blockage we have is that which surrounds the ego-idea. Since it is to the ultimate elimination of this idea that the whole Buddhist training is directed, it may be as well to have a good look at it. In so doing we may get a shock.

 

By the ego (or self) in Buddhism we mean of course the concept of “I am,” though this is much more a feeling than a purely intellectual concept—which is the very reason why it is so much more difficult to uproot. From the psychological point of view we must take it to include not only what, in Freudian terms, is called the ego, but also the id and even the super-ego. Though not wholly adequate, the Freudian conception goes a good way toward giving us the basic idea. This ego of ours is a complex and dynamic set of functions which are not by any means all conscious or under any form of normal conscious control. Its nature is in fact blind ignorance and it fights desperately to maintain that ignorance. It is most important for us to realize from the outset that this is the case, because this is the root-cause of all our troubles. The three unhealthy roots of human nature are greed, hatred, and ignorance, and all our suffering is due to these three. Ignorance is the most fundamental, and greed and hate spring from it.

 

Now the power of ignorance is broken by knowledge, which is seeing correctly. So all we have to do is to learn to see. A-VID-YA; “unwitting” or not seeing is no mere passive principle—it is an active force which opposes discovery of the truth at every turn. No need to look for an external devil: the Father of Lies is within every one of us. We all know the story of the Emperor’s new clothes. In Buddhism the precise opposite of this situation occurs: the clothes go walking in the procession, but there’s no emperor inside them. The whole show is laid on for the honour and glory of a character who doesn’t really exist. Here, then, is our second paradox, and it is certainly no less startling than the first one: the ego is the most ruthlessly gluttonous all-devouring monster there is, and yet really all the time there’s no such thing! All its activities without exception are simply “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” How can we solve this riddle? How can we ever come to grasp the nature of this peculiar monster that “has no mouth and no belly, yet gobbles up the entire world” (as some old Chinese monk might have said, but probably didn’t)?

 

Clearly there must be a sense in which the self exists and another sense in which it doesn’t. Let us first of all have a frank look at it in the sense of something existing. It is not a pretty sight. Underneath all our lofty ideals, our pious thoughts and holy aspirations, we are all alike. Our little personal petty self is the really important thing to us. It is out to grab all it can get, whether in the way of affection and admiration and sympathy or of more apparently tangible satisfactions in the way of sex, money, power, nice things to eat and drink and smell and touch and hear—all sorts of things and it doesn’t care in the very least how it gets them. We don’t all want—at least consciously—all of these things perhaps, but we usually want a lot of credit for not wanting some of them or at least doing without them, even if by necessity rather than choice. All these are aspects of greed including the last, which is of course conceit. They are the things the ego fattens on. Equally impressive and perhaps even more horrifying is the list of items under the heading of hate; we are all capable in our minds of murderous rage, sadism, treachery, and disloyalty of every conceivable kind. Until we have found and identified the seeds of all these things in our own hearts, we cannot claim to have made much progress in self-knowledge.

 

Of course most of us will never yield to such impulses, which may only be very faint; but until a higher stage of development has been reached they will not be totally eliminated as tendencies. The most likely way in which they may find some outward expression will be, perhaps, in the form of over-emotive indignation at the acts of hate committed by somebody else.

 

What can we do about this situation? First, face it. Second, penetrate to its roots. Buddhism is not something airy-fairy or romantic, it is practical. It is first and last something to do. To penetrate to the roots of greed, hatred, and delusion is not very easy and it requires certain methods or techniques. But the great thing is to keep going and not be diverted by irrelevancies, interesting by-paths, plausible excuses or pseudo-mystical fantasies, born of conceit and ignorance. A certain discipline is required, in fact. This can be summed up in one word—restraint. Restraint is not repression. In its simplest form it can be something as apparently “easy” as sitting still. It is just not automatically yielding to every impulse that arises while not, on the other hand, pretending that that impulse does not exist. A good part of Buddhism, in modern terms, is “sales-resistance”: cultivating at least a degree of immunity to the appeals of the outside world which are today constantly attempting, quite deliberately and purposefully, to arouse new desires within us. It is being deaf to the blandishments of the hidden persuaders whether from within or without, or better perhaps, hearing them without reacting. Who is the rich man who, like the camel, cannot pass through the eye of the needle? He is not only the millionaire, the expense-account johnnie, the take-over charlie: he is anybody who has too many mental encumbrances, too many wants.

 

Here then is an exercise: sit down with a straight back for ten minutes resolved not to make a single voluntary bodily movement during that time, and just observe what happens. You may get some surprises, but whatever happens you are bound to learn something. If you find, as will probably be the case, that a lot of thoughts and mental images arise, try to discover where they come from, to catch them at the very moment of arising. You won’t succeed easily, but you will begin to see something of the mechanism of desires and emotions, and this is immensely valuable. Perhaps the most widespread meditational practice in all schools of Buddhism is ānāpānasati or mindfulness of breathing. Just watch the ebb and flow of your breath without interfering and, as far as you can manage, with undivided attention. This is the surest way to achieve calm, concentration, self-knowledge, and insight.

 

There is no Buddhism worthy of the name without practice, but study is also required. This is especially so in the West, where we have not the background of Buddhist thought which exists in Eastern countries. We have to learn as adults what Eastern people have absorbed from childhood. The study of Buddhist theory should therefore not be neglected. Those who deny its necessity do so usually out of conceit, laziness, or ignorance—or a combination of all three.

 

The obvious problem which arises here is: “Where shall I start?” There are many schools of Buddhism and their scriptures, even those readily available in English, are voluminous. There is Theravada and Mahāyāna, in the form of Zen, Tibetan Buddhism and several other varieties. There are numerous books about most of them. Unguided and indiscriminate reading will only lead to mental indigestion. The obvious thing is to get down to basics. If we ask where these basic principles are set out, the answer is in the Pali Canon of the Theravada school. In fact, the seeds of all later, so-called Mahāyāna developments are there in this basic Buddhism.

 

The only reason why some people find Theravada Buddhism apparently unsatisfying is its seemingly negative approach. In the Mahāyāna schools there is greater explicit stress on two things: compassion and the higher wisdom. But we need not worry. Compassion grows inevitably as one trains oneself in Buddhism, and the higher wisdom cannot be gained until the lower wisdom has been developed. It is to this task that the basic training is directed. Before we can begin to grasp the nature of Reality, which is transcendental, we must first grasp the nature of the mundane, the phenomenal world as our senses present it to us. This basically means knowing ourselves. Knowing ourselves means facing our own insecurity. Recognizing the equal insecurity of others is compassion.

 

Why do we feel so insecure? If we can answer this question, we are on the right track. It is due to our recognition that all things are transient. We seek to achieve a stability in the world which, by the very nature of things, cannot be. But Buddhism teaches us more than this: all things are not only transient, they are “empty.” This applies to our precious selves as much as to anything else. Man, said the Buddha, is a mere compound of five things, the five khandhas or aggregates. He has a physical body, feelings, perceptions, emotional reactions, and consciousness. None of these constitutes any sort of a “self” which is permanent and unchanging, nor is there any such thing outside of them. His consciousness is just a series of states of awareness, conditioned by the other factors, reaching back into a limitless past. All we are actually aware of is the present moment, or rather consciousness is just that awareness. There is no separate entity behind it which is aware. In the jargon of some modern philosophers, everything about man is contingent or adjectival, not substantival. The further implications of this must be left for study and meditation, but this is a fundamental principle of all Buddhism. The search for a “self” behind all this is futile. If you don’t believe this you can try to take up the Buddha’s challenge and find it.

 

There may well be a strong feeling of resistance to the acceptance of this point. If so, this feeling itself should be very carefully examined. It is the basis of our habitual ego-reactions. We want so badly to have a “self” and we expend a vast amount of energy in trying to build one up and support it in every way we can think of. That, fundamentally, is why we feel insecure in the world. One could usefully devote a good deal of time meditating on this point alone.

 

The most notable contribution made to psychology by Alfred Adler was his analysis of the inferiority complex. People who, for one reason or another, feel inferior, says Adler, tend to over-compensate and present an appearance of conceit and aggressiveness. Since Adler’s psychology is very much one of social adaptation at not, perhaps, a very profound level, he did not pursue this idea as far as he might have done. But as far as it goes it is quite good Buddhism, though we might prefer to rename his complex the “insecurity complex.” We might even go so far as to say that for the Buddhist everybody’s ego practically consists of an inferiority or insecurity complex, for such an assumption certainly explains a great deal. Every form of ostentation we may indulge in is a way of bolstering up the ego, whether in cruder or subtle form. The large car which seems designed as wide as possible is as much an example of ego-boosting as the padded shoulders worn by the tough: indeed the resemblance is sometimes striking. Of course the compensation for insecurity may take a reverse form of exaggerated modesty and simpering sweetness, or of unnecessary and slightly ostentatious self-sacrifice. This latter is a form of compensation we may choose when all else fails, and it has the advantage of making us feel very holy. Martyrdom is in fact the last consolation of a disappointed ego. And the hallmark of a person who has really gone far in the conquest of self is genuine unobtrusiveness.

 

The formula of Dependent Origination shows by selecting twelve prominent factors how it is that we go round and round the weary circle of rebirths, and how karma operates. It is not a simple formula of “causation” but rather of conditioning. Ignorance (avijjā) is a necessary condition for our being here—hence if we were not ignorant we would not have been reborn. And birth is a necessary condition for death—if we had never been born we could not die. Thus, too, feeling based on sense-impression is a necessary condition for the arising of craving: if there were no such feeling there would be no craving. But we can stop the craving from arising or at least prevent its developing into grasping. This is the point at which karma comes into play. Karma is volitional activity born of desire, and as such produces pleasant or unpleasant results in the future. Whatever condition of body and mind we happen to be in now is due to our past karma; it is vipāka or karma-resultant. In accordance with the vipāka we are liable to act in the future, but if we have understanding we can control our future actions, and thus their future effects.

 

The aim of Buddhist training, of whatever school, is to break away from the cycle of becoming. This means somehow attaining the Transcendental Reality which is not karma-bound and therefore permanent, secure, and free from suffering. We do not, as unenlightened individuals, know what this is: at best we have a vague intuition of something wholly other. Its true nature is hidden from us by the veils of our ignorance. The state of enlightenment is called Nirvana (Nibbāna in Pali), which is, be it noted, selfless (anattā). This means that we cannot grasp it as long as the self-concept (or feeling) is operative. It is beyond the realm of duality, which is that of subject and object, or self and other-than-self.

 

Probably most people have at times had a feeling while in the normal sense “wide awake” as if really they were dreaming and would soon wake up. This is actually quite true as far as the first part is concerned. Life, as we know it, is in one sense a dream. The Buddha was the Awakened One, and our normal state is perhaps somewhere about half-way between ordinary sleep and true enlightenment, or wakefulness. We can therefore usefully regard the Buddhist training, if we like, as a way of making ourselves wake up.

 

Sometimes in sleep we become aware of being asleep and want to wake up. Eventually we succeed, but it is often a struggle. The struggle to wake up to enlightenment is far greater than this, because the resistance is stronger. The resistance is stronger for a very simple reason: to the ego it seems like death. This is fair enough, since in fact it is the death of ego. And since we have no real experience of the egoless state, it is unimaginable and therefore we are sceptical about it, but this scepticism too really springs from fear. We should have to give up all our attachments to attain it, and that is too high a price to pay. We are like the rich young man to whom Christ said “Sell all that thou hast and give it to the poor.” He went sorrowfully away.

 

What then must we do, now that we have taken the first step and embarked on the course of Buddhism? We need to have a chart and compass to help us on our way. But first we have to know where we are supposed to be going. The goal of Buddhism is Enlightenment or Awakening or Nirvana, the Deathless State, which is the end of all suffering and frustration, the one permanent and supremely desirable thing. Buddhism claims to be a way of attaining this. There are five factors to be developed which, if they are predominant in our minds, will tend increasingly to bring us to the goal. They are Faith, Energy, Mindfulness, Concentration, and Wisdom. The first of these may come as a surprise to some people. “I thought,” they may say, “you didn’t have to have faith in Buddhism.” In fact faith is an important factor to develop. We can call it confidence or trust if we prefer it. But unless we have some confidence that there is such a goal as Nirvana, we shall not even start taking Buddhism seriously at all, and we need also to trust the Buddha as the teacher who has shown the way to reach that goal. At the very least we need to be free from the sort of nihilistic scepticism which is so common today and which prevents us from believing wholeheartedly in anything worthwhile. When we say “I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha” we are expressing faith in the Teaching and the Order of monks who have preserved it and handed it on.

 

If we have faith we next need to put forth effort, so we need energy. Right Effort is a step of the Eightfold Path. It means getting rid of wrong states of mind and developing right ones. Clearly a certain amount of vigour is required to do this, and faith will strengthen our will to persevere. Clearing up our mental muddle calls for increased self-knowledge, and this is gained by Mindfulness. Mindfulness is being aware of one’s own nature and observing one’s own reactions, being fully cognizant of what one is about all the time. It is developed by training, such exercises as mindfulness on breathing and on walking being especially beneficial. With full mindfulness, self-deception becomes impossible. It is the way of uncovering the subterfuges of the ego. The Buddha described it as “the one and only way” to the liberation of beings. It is an absolutely indispensable factor in all Buddhist training. Being mindful one is, too, in some degree automatically concentrated, but the practice of mental concentration can be carried further, to samādhi, which is mental one-pointedness. By a combination of these two factors, the mind can be sharpened to an instrument capable of cutting through the veils of ego-created illusion. The last of the five factors is Wisdom. Wisdom in this connection means discernment. It includes investigation of all mental phenomena to their essence, which is voidness. When this lower, still mundane wisdom has been sufficiently developed, a basis has been created for the arising of the higher Insight-Wisdom, the perfection of which is Enlightenment. When this has been attained, the job is done.

 

But these factors must be developed in such a manner that they are properly balanced. Faith must be balanced with Wisdom, and Energy with Concentration. Faith without Wisdom can overreach itself and turn into that kind of blind faith which Buddhism does not encourage. On the other hand, Wisdom without Faith is sterile. Energy unaccompanied by Concentration can easily lead to restlessness, while Concentration without sufficient Energy leads to sloth. It is the function of Mindfulness, by watching over the other factors, to see that the proper balance between them is maintained. These five factors are called indriyas or “ruling factors.” This means that they can and should dominate the mind and give it direction. They are the five guides to keep us on the way. Having taken the first step, and with these as guides, but especially under the leadership of Mindfulness, let us walk on.

 

Source: BPS, Kandy. Wheel 294 (excerpt). For Free Distribution Only.

 

Parisā

Each month our Parisā 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. Parisā is a dispersed community of dedicated meditators around the world who have come together through engaging in one of Vipassanā Fellowship's 10 or 12 week meditation courses. If you recently finished one of our courses this is an excellent way to nurture your ongoing practice.

http://www.vipassana.com/parisa/

 

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