Friday, May 25, 2007

Vipassana and Samatha Meditation

May 12, 2007

Meditation is the practical application of Buddhism. It is the means by which mind control is developed and insight gained into the true nature of things. It is the experiential aspect of all the teachings of all Buddha.

Five of the eight elements of the eight-fold path directly pertain to meditation. Those are Right View, Right Intention, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

From the Zen perspective, one has instantly dealt with Right View, Right Intention and Right Effort by sitting down to meditate in the first place. Regardless of what sort of person you are, full of merit or not, compassionate or impatient, the decision to practice meditation in that moment is already akin to Buddha, before you even have a chance to get frustrated by an uncomfortable posture. When this happens, you must of course employ Right Effort, with diligence in examining the discomfort impersonally, as impermanent suffering, and not-self. Right Mindfulness and Concentration are cultivated through patient investigation of Buddha-nature within oneself, developing an “intentness of meritorious thought” (Warren).

There are two main types of Buddhist meditation, Vipassana and Samatha. ‘Vipassana’, or Insight Meditation, is a practice in awareness of the arising and subsiding of physical and mental phenomena. It is a process of observing the truth from moment to moment, becoming absorbed in impermanence and not-self. ‘Vipassana’ is associated with the Seven Stages of Purification. Buddhaghosa delineates the process in the Visuddhimagga, providing the framework for the disciple’s gradual progress from the most basic cultivation of virtue through to the final goal of enlightenment. In brief, the 7 purifications are: i) proper moral conduct, ii) developing calm (samatha), iii) purification of view, iv) purification of overcoming doubt, v) knowing and seeing what is the way and what is not the way, vi) purification through knowing and seeing the path, vii) final purification by knowing and seeing. There are lengthy commentaries on each of the stages that deserve more thorough consideration than i will give them here.

‘Samatha’, or Serenity Meditation, is a calming concentration based on fixing the mind on a single object in order to attain one-pointedness of mind. According to the Visuddhi-Magga, as translated in Warren (p. 291), there are forty subjects of meditation: “ten kasinas, ten impurities, ten reflections, four sublime states, four formless states, one perception, and one analysis.” The kasinas are various elements of the physical earth, such as “the earth-kasina, the water-kasina, the fire-kasana, the wind-kasana, the dark-blue kasina…etc” The most well-known of these kasinas in the is the mindfulness of breath, as it is a universal experience and an apt example of that which is both conscious and sub-conscious, that which will be perpetuated without our attention, but can also be manipulated to our advantage with mindfulness.

The ten impurities refer to different states of a corpse in the process of decay. The purpose of concentrating on a “hacked-to-pieces corpse,” for example, is to be reminded of impermanence, as proof that the material world is transitory, and inspire meditation on suffering inherent in physical existence.
The ten reflections are a list of subjects for analysis, concepts upon which singular focus can cultivate wisdom and merit, such as, “reflection on the Buddha…on the Order…on conduct…on the gods…the contemplation of death…of the body…of breathing…” and so forth.
“The four sublime states are: friendliness, compassion, joy, and indifference…The one perception is the perception of the loathsomeness of nutriment. The one analysis is the analysis into the four elements.” (Warren, 292) The four elements referred to here are Earth, Water, Wind and Fire.

The four formless states constitute the four steps of the Trance of Cessation. The trance of cessation “is the total stopping of the mind and all its thoughts through a gradual process of elimination” (Beyer). There are 4 successive dhyanas, or trances that follow a logical progression of absorption and analytical understanding of things as they are. The four realms are that of Infinite Space, Realm of Infinite Perception, Realm of Nothing-at-all, and the Realm of Neither Idea nor Non-idea. The process is succinctly summarized by Stephan Beyer in The Buddhist Experience, “[T]he monk achieves the first of these formless trances by transcending material things, the second by transcending space, the third by transcending his perception of space, and the fourth by transcending the elimination of his perception of space.” Again, there is infinite depth to the process that cannot be satisfactorily dealt with in short, survey paper such as this.

The two types of meditation exist in symbiotic harmony, and can be differentiated solely by the chosen focus of the meditator, and even then there is overlap. Depending on how he manipulates his mind, he trains it to be still and empty of delusion. Though samatha is listed as the second of the seven purifications, it is not contained by this definition. Both styles of focus are sufficient for liberation. Indeed, it seems that ‘Vipassana’ and ‘Samatha’ are simply two different paths leading to the same transcendent state.

The physical act of meditating can be done in several different ways. The traditional image of a meditator is of a tranquil man seated in the lotus position, but concentration can also be cultivated through the practice of walking meditation. Walking meditation is a form of Vipassana where the concentration is on the movements of the body, being mindful of the component parts of each step. The practice is to pace slowly back and forth over a small area, keeping attention fixed on the sole of the foot and observing all the sensations of movement as they arise. Walking meditation can provide balance to a practice that has become stagnant and dull from too much sitting. It is an excellent tool in developing constant awareness in all one’s daily activities. If one is able to transition from walking to sitting meditation without unfocusing the mind, then why not keep active awareness while brushing one’s teeth, or making a cup of tea?

The practice of meditation is self-perpetuating. As one becomes ever more mindful, the practice becomes easier until it is essentially effortless. Zen tradition holds ‘Aimlessness’ as one of its three principle precepts (Thich Nhat Hanh), based on the idea that exuberant reality exists in every thing at every moment, and it is only the cloud of delusion that prevents us from witnessing enlightenment itself in each ksana that creeps past. The basic goal of meditation in any form is to focus, and quiet the mind to better understand how to lead a more meritorious existence, with the ultimate goal of piercing our overcast conceptualizations, clearing our consciousness to allow the transcendent light of Neither Idea nor Non-idea to shine in, and truly take refuge in the void.

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