Traditional Meditation Approaches

Traditionally, there are two main approaches of Buddhist meditation, one is Samatha and the other is Vipassana. They are in fact complementary practices, largely overlapping. Start practicing either Samatha or Vipassana first and then develop the other is both workable as both are based on the cultivation of concentration and mindfulness (insight), the major difference in practice is more on the emphasis being placed either on concentration or insight, one way or the other. In fact, there are benefits and obstacles for either way. If Samatha is practiced first, it will be good in developing concentration, calming mind and will help the practitioner easier to deal with the five hindrances, namely desire, aversion, sloth and torpor, restlessness/worry and doubt. However, once the practitioner attains Jhana, it may also develop into an obstacle as the practitioner may attach to the blissful states without understanding their true nature, and be reluctant to turn to insight meditation. Over centuries, different methods of meditation have been developed based on these two approaches. However, it is common to develop concentration first before insight is developed. The methods that are widely practiced today include Mahasi’s method, U Ba Khin’s/Goenka’s method, Cai Dong Zazen (just sitting) method, Lin Ji Koans method etc. The Mahasi’s and Goenka’s method are based on Vipassana, while Zazen and Koans are based on Samatha. Samatha is also known as the meditation for calm. Samatha means tranquility. Meditation, which is known as Jhana in Pali or Dhyana in Sanskrit, is regarded as a  form of mental exercise which involves the practice of tranquility and observation. The practice of tranquility starts with the development one-pointedness on a chosen object of focus, usually on breath. The key is on “The reflection of non-thought… One, that which is without conceptual images”, and comprehending and experiencing the state of non-differentiation, clarity, joy and unification of mind and object of focus in attaining tranquility. While in the practice of observation, the key is on  “The reflections of thought… One, that which has conceptual images”, and comprehending and experiencing clear-seeing, seeing deeply, discerning and insight. The term of Jhana refers to meditative absorption, that is a continuous focus of the mind on the chosen object. There are stages of Jhana as developed in the Samatha meditation and in the first four Jhanas, there are five material factors that the practitioner will be aware, they are: 1. Applied Thought: Searching, gross thought 2. Sustained Thought: Watching, sustain thought 3. Rapture 4. Bliss 5. One-pointedness with Equanimity The first two factors, searching and watching are the important skill of Jhana. Use ringing a bell as an example, searching is the initial hit of the bell, and watching is the vibrating echo from the initial hit. For another example, like a big bird flying, searching is the flapping of the wings, and watching is the gliding along.
With this skill, practitioner will become aware of all the five Jhana factors – applied thought, sustained thought, rapture, bliss and one-pointedness with equanimity, in the first stage of Jhana. However, in the second Jhana, only one-pointedness, bliss and rapture will be aware. And in the third Jhana, only one-pointedness and bliss will be aware. Then, in the fourth Jhana, only one-pointedness will be aware. These four Jhanas are called material absorptions (rupa Jhana), as what is aware of are all material form. Further development from the fourth Jhana will be in three directions as follows: 1. Immaterial/Formless Absorptions (arupa Jhanas), in aware of infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness and neither perception nor non-perception; 2. Higher knowledges, such as psychic powers, clairvoyance, clairaudience, memory of previous lives, mind reading; 3. Insight meditation (vipassana) leading to nirvana In the context of Sutta, searching is referred to as consideration, while watching is considered as examination. In the question of “What is concentration with consideration and examination? What is concentration without consideration, only examination? What is concentration without consideration or examination?” as inquired by Maitreya. The Buddha replied, “If there is tranquility and observation with grossly manifest reception and contemplation of the characteristics of the principles or phenomena one has taken up for consideration and examination, this is called concentration with consideration and examination” “If there are no grossly manifest reception and contemplation of those characteristics, yet there are subtle mental reception and contemplation, this tranquility and observation is called tranquility and observation without consideration, only with examination.” “If there is no conscious reception or contemplation of the characteristics of any principles or phenomena at all, this tranquility and observation is called concentration without consideration or examination.” “Also, searching tranquility and observation is called concentration with consideration and examination. Investigate tranquility and observation is called concentration with only examination and no consideration. Tranquility and observation focused on the totality of reality is called concentration without consideration or examination.” In practicing meditation, there are always two enemies to deal with, namely torpid and excited.  In the Sutta, Maitreya inquired, “What is stopping, arousal and relinquishment?” The Budhha replied, “If the mind is excited, or afraid of excitement, then concentration on undesirable things, or on uninterrupted mind, is call stopping. In the other words, deviate temporary away from the original object of focus by paying attention uninterruptedly on the feeling arise from concentrating on undesirable things”; “If the mind is torpid,or afraid of torpor, then concentration on desirable things, or on the characteristics of the mind, is called arousal. In the other words, deviate temporary away from the original object of focus by paying attention on the characteristics of the mind arise from concentrating on desirable things”; “When one practices only tranquility or only observation, or if affected by addictions when practicing both, effortless concentration and concentration in the spontaneous operation of mind is called relinquishment.” As such, there are a few points for practitioner to remember while practicing tranquility: 1. The practitioner is creating the conditions and environment so that his/her body and mind can relax and harmonize, but do not expect or try to make them relax and harmonize. Just accept whatever is happening as natural and let it be! 2. The object of focus is not on one single spot but the movement happening on one spot 3. Try to notice the different between focusing on mental object and physical object. More emphasis should be place on mental object 4. One of the method to maintain an uninterrupted mind is to repeatedly recall the essence or key phases of the object of focus. 5. Cultivate patience and respect to oneself and to whatever one is doing 6. If the mind wanders away, just simply bring it back to the object of focus 7. If the practitioner are tensing up while practicing, loosing up the intensity of his/her effort to focus. The practitioner may also widen the field of focus 8. Enjoy being together with the object of focus Vipassana is known as the meditation for insight, which is referring to seeing, discerning the nature of conditioned phenomena, that is seeing their impermanence, non-satisfactoriness and non-self. The purpose of vipassana is to eliminate the three unwholesome roots, that is greed, aversion and ignorance, and realization of nirvana. The practice of vipassana can either starts after completing the four Jhana, or starts without the initial samatha meditation. The method of vipassana is to be mindfulness or in high awareness of all mental and physical processes from moment to moment. All the existence are categorized into as “mental phenomena” (nama) and physical/matter (rupa) as grouped under the four satipatthanas, and accordingly, four areas of mindfulness are developed in corresponding to the five aggregates, which are the five categories of conditioned existence. The four areas of mindfulness are: 1. the mindfulness of body (kaya); 2. the mindfulness of feelings (vedana); 3. the mindfulness of the mind(citta), which corresponds with consciousness (vinnana); 4. the mindfulness of mental objects (dhamma), which corresponds with perception (sanna) and mental formation (sankhara). It is this four foundations of mindfulness that leads to nirvana. In contrast to samatha, mindfulness is a broad receptiveness without a narrow focus. This practice requires the establishment of four mental qualities – diligent (atapi), clearly knowing (sampajana), mindful (sati) and free from desires and aversion. The aim of practicing vipassana is to develop insight into the three characteristics of all phenomena and their conditionality. It is also to eradicate gradually in four stages of insight the three unwholesome roots (greed, aversion and ignorance) or the ten principal fetters. The four stages of insight is: – Impermanence (anicca): insight into momentary changes of all phenomena (deconstruction of the concept of solidity of things) – non-satisfactoriness (dukkha): insight into insecurity of existence due to momentary changes of all mental and physical phenomena which have no permanent, solid foundation – non-self (anatta): insight into selflessness, empty nature of all mental and physical phenomena; experience of equanimity and peace; when mindfulness becomes effortless, accompanied by strong wisdom, one experiences just the mental space in which phenomena manifest – nirvana: a complete cessation of phenomenal world, a state without change,  permanent, empty self, without suffering; follows the stage of balanced equanimity with mindfulness and wisdom well established.

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