Monday, January 31, 2011
On how to Meditate by Venerable Ācariya Mahā Boowa
An Exerpt from ARAHATTAMAGGA ARAHATTAPHALA :The Path to Arahantship (pp.12-27)
by Venerable Ācariya Mahā Boowa; (http://www.scribd.com/doc/47794869/Maha-Boowa-The-Path-to-Arahantship)
I am speaking here from personal experience. When I first began to meditate, my practice lacked a solid foundation. Since I had yet to discover the right method to look after my mind, my practice was in a state of constant flux. It would make steady progress for awhile only to decline rapidly and fall back to its original untutored condition. Due to the intense effort I exerted in the beginning, my mind succeeded in attaining a calm and concentrated state of samãdhi. It felt as substantial and stable as a mountain. Still lacking a suitable method for maintaining this state, I took it easy and rested on my laurels. That was when my practice suffered a decline. My practice began to deteriorate, but I didn’t know how to reverse the decline. So I thought long and hard, trying to find a firm basis on which I could expect to stabilize my mind. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that mindfulness had deserted me because my fundamentals were wrong: I lacked a meditation-word to act as a precise focus for my attention.
I was forced to begin my practice anew. This time I first drove a stake firmly into the ground and held tightly to it no matter what happened. That stake was buddho, the recollection of the Buddha. I made the meditation-word buddho the sole object of my attention. I focused on the mental repetition of buddho to the exclusion of everything else. Buddho became my sole objective even as I made sure that mindfulness was always in control to direct the effort. All thoughts of progress or decline were put aside. I would let happen whatever was going to happen. I was determined not to indulge in my old thought patterns: thinking about the past—when my practice was progressing nicely—and of how it collapsed; then thinking of the future, hoping that, somehow, through a strong desire to succeed, my previous sense of contentment would return on its own. All the while, I had failed to create the condition that would bring the desired results. I merely wished to see improvement, only to be disappointed when it failed to materialize. For, in truth, desire for success does not bring success; only mindful effort will.
This time I resolved that, no matter what occurred, I should just let it happen. Fretting about progress and decline was a source of agitation, distracting me from the present moment and the work at hand. Only the mindful repetition of buddho could prevent fluctuations in my meditation. It was paramount that I center the mind on awareness of the immediate present. Discursive thinking could not be allowed to disrupt concentration.
To practice meditation earnestly to attain an end to all suffering, you must be totally committed to the work at each successive stage of the path. Nothing less than total commitment will succeed. To experience the deepest levels of samãdhi and achieve the most profound levels of wisdom, you cannot afford to be halfhearted and listless, forever wavering because you lack firm principles to guide your practice. Meditators without a firm commitment to the principles of practice can meditate their entire lives without gaining the proper results. In the initial stages of practice, you must find a stable object of meditation with which to anchor your mind. Don’t just focus casually on an ambiguous object, like awareness that is always present as the mind’s intrinsic nature. Without a specific object of attention to hold your mind, it will be almost impossible to keep your attention from wandering. This is a recipe for failure. In the end, you’ll become disappointed and give up trying.
When mindfulness loses its focus, the kilesas rush in to drag your thoughts to a past long gone, or a future yet to come. The mind becomes unstable and strays aimlessly over the mental landscape, never remaining still or contented for a moment. This is how meditators lose ground while watching their meditation practice collapse. The only antidote is a single, uncomplicated focal point of attention; such as a meditation-word or the breath. Choose one that seems most appropriate to you, and focus steadfastly on that one object to the exclusion of everything else. Total commitment is essential to the task.
If you choose the breath as your focal point, make yourself fully aware of each in-breath and each out-breath. Notice the sensation created by the breath’s movement and fix your attention on the point where that feeling is most prominent; where the sensation of the breath is felt most acutely: for example, the tip of the nose. Make sure you know when the breath comes in and when it goes out, but don’t follow its course—simply focus on the spot where it passes through. If you find it helpful, combine your breathing with a silent repetition of buddho, thinking bud on the point of inhalation and dho on the point of exhalation. Don’t allow errant thoughts to interfere with the work you are doing. This is an exercise in awareness of the present-moment; so remain alert and fully attentive.
As mindfulness gradually establishes itself, the mind will stop paying attention to harmful thoughts and emotions. It will lose interest in its usual preoccupations. Undistracted, it will settle further and further into calm and stillness. At the same time, the breath—which is coarse when you first begin focusing on it—gradually becomes more and more refined. It may even reach the stage where it completely disappears from your conscious awareness. It becomes so subtle and refined that it fades and disappears. There is no breath at that time—only the mind’s essential knowing nature remains.
MY CHOICE WAS BUDDHO MEDITATION. From the moment I made my resolve, I kept my mind from straying from the repetition of buddho. From the moment I awoke in the morning until I slept at night, I forced myself to think only of buddho. At the same time, I ceased to be preoccupied with thoughts of progress and decline: If my meditation made progress, it would do so with buddho; if it declined, it would go down with buddho. In either case, buddho was my sole preoccupation. All other concerns were irrelevant.
Maintaining such single-minded concentration is not an easy task. I had to literally force my mind to remain entwined with buddho each and every moment without interruption. Regardless of whether I was seated in meditation, walking meditation or simply doing my daily chores, the word buddho resonated deeply within my mind at all times. By nature and temperament, I was always extremely resolute and uncompromising. This tendency worked to my advantage. In the end, I became so earnestly committed to the task that nothing could shake my resolve; no errant thought could separate the mind from buddho.
Working at this practice day after day, I always made certain that buddho resonated in close harmony with my present-moment awareness. Soon, I began to see the results of calm and concentration arise clearly within the citta, the mind’s essential knowing nature. At that stage, I began to see the very subtle and refined nature of the citta. The longer I internalized buddho, the more subtle the citta became, until eventually the subtlety of buddho and the subtlety of the citta melded into one another and became one and the same essence of knowing. I could not separate buddho from the citta’s subtle nature. Try as I might, I could not make the word buddho appear in my mind. Through diligence and perseverance, buddho had become so closely unified with the citta that buddho itself no longer appeared within my awareness. The mind had become so calm and still, so profoundly subtle, that nothing, not even buddho, resonated there. This meditative state is analogous to the disappearance of the breath, as mentioned above.
When this took place, I felt bewildered. I had predicated my whole practice on holding steadfastly to buddho. Now that buddho was no longer apparent, where would I focus my attention? Up to this point, buddho had been my mainstay. Now it had disappeared. No matter how hard I tried to recover this focus, it was lost. I was in a quandary. All that remained then was the citta’s profoundly subtle knowing nature, a pure and simple awareness, bright and clear. There was nothing concrete within that awareness to latch on to.
I realized then that nothing invades the mind’s sphere of awareness when consciousness—its knowing presence—reaches such a profound and subtle condition. I was left with only one choice: With the loss of buddho, I had to focus my attention on the essential sense of awareness and knowing that was all-present and prominent at that moment. That consciousness had not disappeared; on the contrary, it was all-pervasive. All of the mindful awareness that had concentrated on the repetition of buddho was then firmly refocused on the very subtle knowing presence of the calm and converged citta. My attention remained firmly fixed on that subtle knowing essence until eventually its prominence began to fade, allowing my normal awareness to become reestablished.
As normal awareness returned, buddho manifested itself once more. So I immediately refocused my attention on the repetition of my meditation-word. Before long, my daily practice assumed a new rhythm: I concentrated intently on buddho until consciousness resolved into the clear, brilliant state of the mind’s essential knowing nature, remaining absorbed in that subtle knowing presence until normal awareness returned; and I then refocused with increased vigor on the repetition of buddho.
It was during this stage that I first gained a solid spiritual foundation in my meditation practice. From then on, my practice progressed steadily—never again did it fall into decline. With each passing day, my mind became increasingly calm, peaceful, and concentrated. The fluctuations, that had long plagued me, ceased to be an issue. Concerns about the state of my practice were replaced by mindfulness rooted in the present moment. The intensity of this mindful presence was incompatible with thoughts of the past or future. My center of activity was the present moment—each silent repetition of buddho as it arose and passed away. I had no interest in anything else. In the end, I was convinced that the reason for my mind’s previous state of flux was the lack of mindfulness arising from not anchoring my attention with a meditation-word. Instead, I had just focused on a general feeling of inner awareness without a specific object, allowing my mind to stray easily as thoughts intruded.
Once I understood the correct method for this initial stage of meditation, I applied myself to the task with such earnest commitment that I refused to allow mindfulness to lapse for even a single moment. Beginning in the morning, when I awoke, and continuing until night, when I fell asleep, I was consciously aware of my meditation at each and every moment of my waking hours. It was a difficult ordeal, requiring the utmost concentration and perseverance. I couldn’t afford to let down my guard and relax even for a moment. Being so intently concentrated on the internalization of buddho, I hardly noticed what went on around me. My normal daily interactions passed by in a blur, but buddho was always sharply in focus. My commitment to the meditation-word was total. With this firm foundation to bolster my practice, mental calm and concentration became so unshakable that they felt as solid and unyielding as a mountain.
Eventually this rock-solid condition of the mind became the primary point of focus for mindfulness. As the citta steadily gained greater inner stability, resulting in a higher degree of integration,
the meditation-word buddho gradually faded from awareness, leaving the calm and concentrated state of the mind’s essential knowing nature to be perceived prominently on its own. By that stage, the mind had advanced to samãdhi—an intense state of focused awareness, assuming a life of its own, independent of any meditation technique. Fully calm and unified, the knowing presence itself became the sole focus of attention, a condition of mind so prominent and powerful that nothing else can arise to dislodge it. This is known as the mind being in a state of continuous samãdhi. In other words, the citta is samãdhi—both are one and the same.
Speaking in terms of the deeper levels of meditation practice, a fundamental difference exists between a state of meditative calm and the samãdhi state. When the mind converges and drops into a calm, concentrated state to remain for a period of time before withdrawing to normal consciousness, this is known as meditative calm. The calm and concentration are temporary conditions that last while the mind remains fixed in that peaceful state. As normal consciousness returns, these extraordinary conditions gradually dissipate. However, as the meditator becomes more adept at this practice—entering into and withdrawing from a calm, unified state over and over again—the mind begins to build a solid inner foundation. When this foundation becomes unshakable in all circumstances, the mind is known to be in a state of continuous samãdhi. Then, even when the mind withdraws from meditative calm it still feels solid and compact, as though nothing can disturb its inward focus.
The citta that is continuously unified in samãdhi is always even and unperturbed. It feels completely satiated. Because of the very compact and concentrated sense of inner unity, everyday thoughts and emotions no longer make an impact. In such a state, the mind has no desire to think about anything. Completely peaceful and contented within itself, nothing is felt to be lacking.In such a state of continuous calm and concentration, the citta becomes very powerful. While the mind was previously hungry to experience thoughts and emotions, it now shuns them as a nuisance. Before it was so agitated that it couldn’t stop thinking and imagining even if it wanted to. Now, with samãdhi as its habitual condition, the mind feels no desire to think about anything. It views thought as an unwanted disturbance. When the mind’s essential knowing presence stands out prominently all the time, the citta is so inwardly concentrated that it tolerates no disturbance. Because of this sublime tranquility—and the tendency of samãdhi to lull the mind into this state of serene satisfaction—those whose minds have attained continuous samãdhi tend to become strongly attached to it. It remains so until one reaches the level of practice where wisdom prevails, and the results become even more satisfying.
FROM THEN ON I ACCELERATED MY EFFORTS. It was at that time that I began sitting in meditation all night long, from dusk until dawn. While sitting one night I started focusing inward as usual. Because it had already developed a good, strong foundation, the citta easily entered into samãdhi. So long as the citta rested there calmly, it remained unaware of external bodily feelings. But when I withdrew from samãdhi many hours later I began to experience them in full. Eventually, my body was so racked by severe pain that I could hardly cope. The citta was suddenly unnerved, and its good, strong foundation completely collapsed. The entire body was filled with such excruciating pain that it quivered all over.
Thus began the bout of hand-to-hand combat that gave me insight into an important meditation technique. Until the unexpected appearance that night of such severe pain, I had not thought of trying to sit all night. I had never made a resolution of that kind. I was simply practicing seated meditation as I normally did, but when the pain began to overwhelm me, I thought: “Hey, what’s going on here? I must make every effort to figure out this pain tonight.” So I made the solemn resolve that no matter what happened I would not get up from my seat until dawn of the next day. I was determined to investigate the nature of pain until I understood it clearly and distinctly. I would have to dig deep. But, if need be, I was willing to die in order to find out the truth about pain.
Wisdom began to tackle this problem in earnest. Before I found myself cornered like that with no way out, I never imagined that wisdom could be so sharp and incisive. It went to work, relentlessly whirling around as it probed into the source of the pain with the determination of a warrior who never retreats or accepts defeat. This experience convinced me that in moments of real crisis wisdom arises to meet the challenge. We are not fated to be ignorant forever—when truly backed into a corner we are bound to be able to find a way to help ourselves. It happened to me that night. When I was cornered and overwhelmed by severe pain, mindfulness and wisdom just dug into the painful feelings.
The pain began as hot flashes along the backs of my hands and feet, but that was really quite mild. When it arose in full force, the entire body was ablaze with pain. All the bones, and the joints connecting them, were like fuel feeding the fire that engulfed the body. It felt as though every bone in my body was breaking apart; as though my neck would snap and my head drop to the floor. When all parts of the body hurt at once, the pain is so intense that one doesn’t know how to begin stemming the tide long enough just to breathe.
This crisis left mindfulness and wisdom with no alternative but to dig down into the pain, searching for the exact spot where it felt most severe. Mindfulness and wisdom probed and investigated right where the pain was greatest, trying to isolate it so as to see it clearly. “Where does this pain originate? Who suffers the pain?” They asked these questions of each bodily part and found that each one of them remained in keeping with its own intrinsic nature. The skin was skin, the flesh was flesh, the tendons were tendons, and so forth. They had been so from the day of birth. Pain, on the other hand, is something that comes and goes periodically; it’s not always there in the same way that flesh and skin are. Ordinarily, the pain and the body appear to be all bound up together. But are they really?
Focusing inward I could see that each part of the body was a physical reality. What is real stays that way. As I searched the mass of bodily pain, I saw that one point was more severe than all the others. If pain and body are one, and all parts of the body are equally real, then why was the pain stronger in one part than in another? So I tried to separate out and isolate each aspect. At that point in the investigation, mindfulness and wisdom were indispensable. They had to sweep through the areas that hurt and then whirl around the most intense ones, always working to separate the feeling from the body. Having observed the body, they quickly shifted their attention to the pain, then to the citta. These three: body, pain and citta, are the major principles in this investigation.
Although the bodily pain was obviously very strong, I could see that the citta was calm and unafflicted. No matter how much discomfort the body suffered, the citta was not distressed or agitated. This intrigued me. Normally the kilesas join forces with pain, and this alliance causes the citta to be disturbed by the body’s suffering. This prompted wisdom to probe into the nature of the body, the nature of pain and the nature of the citta until all three were perceived clearly as separate realities, each true in its own natural sphere.
I saw clearly that it was the citta that defined feeling as being painful and unpleasant. Otherwise, pain was merely a natural phenomenon that occurred. It was not an integral part of the body, nor was it intrinsic to the citta. As soon as this principle became absolutely clear, the pain vanished in an instant. At that moment, the body was simply the body—a separate reality on its own. Pain was simply feeling, and in a flash that feeling vanished straight into the citta. As soon as the pain vanished into the citta, the citta knew that the pain had disappeared. It just vanished without a trace.
In addition, the entire physical body vanished from awareness. At that moment I was not consciously aware of the body at all. Only a simple and harmonious awareness remained, alone on its own. That’s all. The citta was so exceedingly refined as to be indescribable. It simply knew—a profoundly subtle inner state of awareness pervaded. The body had completely disappeared. Although my physical form still sat in meditation, I was completely unconscious of it. The pain too had disappeared. No physical feelings were left at all. Only the citta’s essential knowing nature remained. All thinking had stopped; the mind was not forming a single thought. When thinking ceases, not the slightest movement disturbs the inner stillness. Unwavering, the citta remains firmly fixed in its own solitude.
Due to the power of mindfulness and wisdom, the hot, searing pain that afflicted my body had vanished completely. Even my body had disappeared from consciousness. The knowing presence existed alone, as though suspended in midair. It was totally empty, but at the same time vibrantly aware. Because the physical elements did not interact with it, the citta had no sense that the body existed. This knowing presence was a pure and solitary awareness that was not connected to anything whatsoever. It was awesome, majestic and truly magnificent.
It was an incredibly amazing experience. The pain was completely gone. The body had disappeared. An awareness so fine and subtle that I cannot describe it was the only thing not to disappear. It simply appeared, that’s all I can say. It was a truly amazing inner state of being. There was no movement—not even the slightest rippling—inside the citta. It remained fully absorbed in stillness until enough time had elapsed, then it stirred as it began to withdraw from samãdhi. It rippled briefly and then went quiet again.
This rippling happens naturally of its own accord. It cannot be intended. Any intention brings the citta right back to normal consciousness. When the citta absorbed in stillness has had enough, it begins to stir. It is aware that a ripple stirs briefly and then ceases. Some moments later it ripples briefly again, disappearing in the same instant. Gradually, the rippling becomes more and more frequent. When the citta has converged to the very base of samãdhi, it does not withdraw all at once. This was very evident to me. The citta rippled only slightly, meaning that a sankhãra formed briefly only to disappear before it could become intelligible. Having rippled, it just vanished. Again and again it rippled and vanished, gradually increasing in frequency until my citta eventually returned to ordinary consciousness. I then became aware of my physical presence, but the pain was still gone. Initially I felt no pain at all, and only slowly did it begin to reappear.
This experience reinforced the solid spiritual foundation in my heart with an unshakable certainty. I had realized a basic principle in contending with pain: pain, body and citta are all distinctly separate phenomena. But because of a single mental defilement—delusion—they all converge into one. Delusion pervades the citta like an insidious poison, contaminating our perceptions and distorting the truth. Pain is simply a natural phenomenon that occurs on its own. But when we grab hold of it as a burning discomfort, it immediately becomes hot—because our defining it in that way makes it hot.
After awhile the pain returned, so I had to tackle it again—without retreating. I probed deep into the painful feelings, investigating them as I had done before. But this time I could not use the same investigative techniques that I had previously used to such good effect. Techniques employed in the past were no longer relevant to the present moment. In order to keep pace with internal events as they unfolded I needed fresh tactics, newly devised by mindfulness and wisdom and tailor-made for present circumstances. The nature of the pain was still the same, but the tactics had to be suitable to the immediate conditions. Even though I had used them successfully once before, I could not remedy the new situation by holding on to old investigative techniques. Fresh, innovative techniques were required, ones devised in the heat of battle to deal with present-moment conditions. Mindfulness and wisdom went to work anew, and before long the citta once again converged to the very base of samãdhi.
During the course of that night the citta converged like this three times, but I had to engage in bouts of hand-to-hand combat each time. After the third time, dawn came, bringing to a close that decisive showdown. The citta emerged bold, exultant and utterly fearless. Fear of death ceased that night.
PAINFUL FEELINGS ARE JUST naturally occurring phenomena that constantly fluctuate between mild and severe. As long as we do not make them into a personal burden, they don’t have any special meaning for the citta. In and of itself, pain means nothing, so the citta remains unaffected. The physical body is also meaningless in and of itself, and it adds no meaning either to feelings or to oneself—unless, of course, the citta invests it with a specific meaning, gathering in the resultant suffering to burn itself. External conditions are not really responsible for our suffering, only the citta can create that.
Getting up that morning, I felt indescribably bold and daring. I marveled at the amazing nature of my experience. Nothing comparable had ever happened in my meditation before. The citta had completely severed its connection with all objects of attention, converging inward with true courage. It had converged into that majestic stillness because of my thorough, painstaking investigations.
When it withdrew, it was still full of an audacious courage that knew no fear of death. I now knew the right investigative techniques, so I was certain that I’d have no fear the next time that pain appeared. It would, after all, be pain with just the same characteristics. The physical body would be the same old body. And wisdom would be the same faculty I’d used before. For this reason, I felt openly defiant, without fear of pain or death.
Once wisdom had come to realize the true nature of what dies and what does not, death became something quite ordinary. Hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, bones: reduced to their original elemental form, they are simply the earth element. Since when did the earth element ever die? When they decompose and disintegrate, what do they become? All parts of the body revert to their original properties. The earth and water elements revert to their original properties, as do the wind and fire elements. Nothing is annihilated. Those elements have simply come together to form a lump in which the citta then takes up residence. The citta—the great master of delusion—comes in and animates it, and then carries the entire burden by making a self-identity out of it. “This is me, this belongs to me.” Reserving the whole mass for itself, the citta accumulates endless amounts of pain and suffering, burning itself with its own false assumptions.
The citta itself is the real culprit, not the lump of physical elements. The body is not some hostile entity whose constant fluctuations threaten our well-being. It is a separate reality that changes naturally according to its own inherent conditions. Only when we make false assumptions about it does it become a burden we must carry. That is precisely why we suffer from bodily pain and discomfort. The physical body does not produce suffering for us; we ourselves produce it. Thus I saw clearly that no external conditions can cause us to suffer. We are the ones who misconceive things, and that misconception creates the blaze of pain that troubles our hearts.
I understood clearly that nothing dies. The citta certainly doesn’t die; in fact, it becomes more pronounced. The more fully we investigate the four elements, breaking them down into their original properties, the more distinctly pronounced the citta appears. So where is death to be found? And what is it that dies? The four elements—earth, water, wind and fire—they don’t die. As for the citta, how can it die? It becomes more conspicuous, more aware and more insightful. This essential knowing nature never dies, so why is it so afraid of death? Because it deceives itself. For eons and eons it has fooled itself into believing in death when actually nothing ever dies.
So when pain arises in the body we must realize that it is merely feeling, and nothing else. Don’t define it in personal terms and assume that it is something happening to you. Pains have afflicted your body since the day you were born. The pain that you experienced at the moment you emerged from your mother’s womb was excruciating. Only by surviving such torment are human beings born. Pain has been there from the very beginning and it’s not about to reverse course or alter its character. Bodily pain always exhibits the same basic characteristics: having arisen, it remains briefly and then ceases. Arising, remaining briefly, ceasing—that’s all there is to it.
Investigate painful feelings arising in the body so as to see them clearly for what they are. The body itself is merely a physical form, the physical reality you have known since birth. But when you believe that you are your body, and your body hurts, then you are in pain. Being equated, body, pain and the awareness that perceives them then converge into one: your painful body. Physical pain arises due to some bodily malfunction. It arises dependent on some aspect of the body, but it is not itself a physical phenomenon. Awareness of both body and feelings is dependent on the citta—the one who knows them. But when the one who’s aware of them knows them falsely, then concern about the physical cause of the pain and its apparent intensity cause emotional pain to arise. Pain not only hurts but it indicates that there is something wrong with you—your body. Unless you can separate out these three distinct realities, physical pain will always cause emotional distress.
The body is merely a physical phenomenon. We can believe whatever we like about it, but that will not alter fundamental principles of truth. Physical existence is one such fundamental truth. Four elemental properties—earth, water, wind and fire—gather together in a certain configuration to form what is called a “person”. This physical presence may be identified as a man or a woman and be given a specific name and social status, but essentially it is just the rýpa khandha—a physical heap. Lumped together, all the constituent parts form a human body, a distinct physical reality. And each separate part is an integral part of that one fundamental reality. The four elements join together in many different ways. In the human body we speak of the skin, the flesh, the tendons, the bones, and so forth. But don’t be fooled into thinking of them as separate realities simply because they have different names. See them all as one essential reality—the physical heap.
As for the heap of feelings, they exist in their own sphere. They are not part of the physical body. The body isn’t feeling either. It has no direct part in physical pain. These two khandhas—body and feeling—are more prominent than the khandhas of memory, thought and consciousness, which, because they vanish as soon as they arise, are far more difficult to see. Feelings, on the other hand, remain briefly before they vanish. This causes them to standout, making them easier to isolate during meditation.
Focus directly on painful feelings when they arise and strive to understand their true nature. Confront the challenge head on. Don’t try to avoid the pain by focusing your attention elsewhere. And resist any temptation to wish for the pain to go away. The purpose of the investigation must be a search for true understanding. The neutralization of pain is merely a by-product of the clear understanding of the principles of truth. It cannot be taken as the primary objective. That will only create the conditions for greater emotional stress when the relief one wishes for fails to materialize. Stoic endurance in the face of intense pain will not succeed either. Nor will concentrating single-mindedly on pain to the exclusion of the body and the citta. In order to achieve the proper results, all three factors must be included in the investigation. The investigation must always be direct and purposeful.