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Excellent Technique of Meditation Rediscovered by the Buddha

Bhante T. Seelananda, Bhavana Society Forest Monastery, High View, WV, USA

The Buddha of our era, Sākyamuni Gotama, attained supreme Buddhahood on the Full Moon Day of Vesak in the month of May in the year 588 BCE. He is the only historical Buddha. All those who visit the holy places in India can see the ruins of the historic sites pertaining to the life of the Buddha. His Enlightenment was not something granted by a heavenly maker, but a self-awakening.  He was the Self- Awakened One (Samma Sambuddha). Buddhas are rare beings in the world, born only after eons and eons.  

Siddhartha Gotama was born as a prince full of skills developed throughout many lives in samsāra. He was born in the northeast of India on the Full Moon Day of Vesak (May). It so happened, that he was born, attained Enlightenment and passed away into parinibbāna (not to be born again) on the same day - the Full Moon Day of May. On that special day, during the first watch of the night, as he was sitting under the Bodhi Tree on the bank of river Neranjarā, and practicing mindfulness of breathing, he realized the changing nature of all existence in the whole universe. 

Practicing further, he realized that whatever is subject to change, when we grasp after it, will be unsatisfactory in the end and that this changing, unsatisfactory nature of existence is also without a permanent self. Thus, he realized the three characteristics of existence of all phenomena. This is called insight or Vipassanā in Pali, the language of the Buddha’s time.


Vipassanā means insight; that is, seeing through, penetration. The Buddha’s teachings lead us to insight into impermanence, dissatisfaction and selflessness (anicca, dukkha, anatta) . Passati here means see (in Pali). Vi+passati means see clearly, see through or see vividly, separately or especially. This is nothing but seeing the three characteristics of existence. The person who sees these three has a special eye - the ‘Dhamma eye’ (Dhamma cakkhu).

The Buddha realized this first and then on the full moon day of July in the same year (588 BCE), he taught this wonderful and marvelous technique of meditation to a group of five ascetics. At the end of this maiden discourse, Ven. Kondañña experienced the same thing. That is, ‘whatever is in the nature of arising, it is in the nature of perishing’ (yam kinci samudaya dhammam sabbam tam nirodha dhammam). 

Today, Vipassanā is a very popular term in the North America and the West. Many instructors talk of vipassanā but many still really do not tackle the relationship between vipassanā and the belief in a soul or self. If one understands clearly the original teaching of the Buddha, there is no such thing to be grasped as a soul or self. Soul or self means a permanent entity, a substance. According to the Buddha, since everything is ever-changing, there is nothing permanent; whether animate or inanimate, all things are insubstantial and dependent on conditions. The Buddha’s second discourse was entirely dedicated to the rejection of a permanent entity called soul or self as all the five ascetics were Brahmins who firmly believed there was a soul emanating from a creator.  

It is clear that belief in the idea of the soul, requires belief in a creator and vice versa. But these beliefs block one from seeing clearly the three characteristics of existence. Without these fundamental insights on the path to Enlightenment, a person will be unable to attain the first stage of the holy life, which is called Stream Winner or Stream Enterer. This is why we need Vipassanā, the technique of meditation to see things as they are. The Buddha clearly said this in many discourses he elucidated throughout the 45 years of his ministry. In this manner, the teaching of the Buddha is unique. The Buddha realized this unique technique with his attainment of enlightenment 2,600 years ago, in 588 BCE. This is why the year 2011 is very significant for all Buddhists in the world and this is why it is celebrated in grand scale in Buddhist countries all over the world from May 2011 through May 2012. 

Buddhist Meditation

In accordance with the teaching of the Buddha, there are two levels of meditation; concentration or serenity meditation (Samatha bhāvanā), and insight meditation (Vipassanā bhāvanā).  Of the two, Vipassanā can be called the heart of Buddhist meditation. This is popularly known as either “insight meditation” or “wisdom meditation” (Paññā bhāvanā). 

Concentration or serenity meditation is practiced in almost all religions and nowadays, there are many meditation methods offered in the spiritual marketplace.  The need is great since stress is everywhere in modern life, with the daily news full of endless reports of menace and chaos in the world. Meditation offers a remedy for our anxiety and confusion. Serenity and insight meditation both should be practiced for the reduction and elimination of stress. 

The Buddha said that this is the correct, direct way to the elimination of all sorts of suffering including mental and physical discomfort, depression and distress. Addressing his monks, the Buddha once said, ” O monks, this is the direct way for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of pain and grief, for reaching the noble path, for the attainment of Enlightenment; namely, the four establishments of mindfulness.”  The four establishments of mindfulness are: 

. The establishment of mindfulness of body (the breath body and the corporeal body) 
. The establishment of mindfulness of feelings (all psycho-physical feelings/sensations) 
. The establishment of mindfulness of the mind (the function of mind and mental states)
. The establishment of mindfulness of mental objects (elimination of the five hindrances [sensual desire, ill-will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and doubt]; understanding of the real nature of the five aggregates; the twelve bases; development of the seven factors of enlightenment and realizing the Four Noble Truths).

In fact, Vipassanā is the result of practicing these four establishments of mindfulness. With the view of teaching these four establishments of mindfulness, the Buddha delivered a special discourse named “The Great Discourse on the Establishment of Mindfulness” (Mahā Satipatthāna Sutta). 

The Key to Vipassana

As the Buddha expounded clearly in this discourse and on many other occasions, mindfulness is the most significant thing, the key to this technique of vipassanā. Mindfulness means not recollecting, remembering, reciting or repeating something, like a mantra, but being aware of the present situation, present moment. We are attentive and well focused on the subject of meditation - mindfulness of our breathing. When one practices meditation, being mindful, it is initially necessary to practice concentration or serenity meditation for some time. One gives full attention to the breath and constantly observes the natural flow of the in-breath and out-breath (or the meditator can practice another form of meditation such as loving friendliness). Once concentration is developed and cultivated, the practitioner can switch to insight meditation. When insight meditation is practiced, it reveals the truth of the impermanent, unsatisfactory and selfless nature of all the psychophysical aspects of existence. A penetrative wisdom and solace is gained as the result of the constant practice of mindfulness. This points the way to the complete elimination of suffering (dukkha) and the realization of Enlightenment, Nibbāna, the ultimate bliss taught by the Buddha. 

The Requirements

Vipassanā offers the peacefulness and solace modern humankind desperately needs. It is because of greed, hatred, and delusion that we suffer in our daily lives, and through the endless rounds of birth and death (samsāra). The Buddha very clearly and categorically stated that the defilements could be completely eliminated through penetrative wisdom, developed and cultivated by practicing insight. But it is not that easy. You cannot do it overnight. Unflagging effort, patience, strong determination and devotion, as well as clear understanding of the real teachings of the Buddha, particularly on mental development (bhāvanā), are required. At the very beginning, a practitioner must come to understand the true nature of their psychophysical makeup. 

Three Characteristics and Nibbāna

In practicing Vipassanā, one clearly perceives the constant flux of our daily existence. When the practitioner realizes the nature of impermanence, he or she spontaneously realizes the nature of mind and matter (nāma-rupa). Moreover, the practitioner realizes that both mind and matter are uncontrollable, and will disappear in accordance with their insubstantiality . The ultimate goal in Buddhism, Nibbāna, can be realized only through the realization of these three characteristics of existence, namely impermanence, discomfort or dissatisfaction, and insubstantiality (anicca, dukkha, anatta).

Precious Moment, Real Moment

In order to practice meditation as taught by the Buddha, one has to understand the significance of being aware of the present moment. The Buddha realized that while we are either caught up in the past or pondering the future, we will never find comfort in the present moment. It is ‘the precious moment,’ the real moment, which we can experience right now. The Buddha’s admonition to all of us is to dwell in the present moment so as to realize the real nature of all material and immaterial things. So, Buddhist meditation teaches us how to be in the present moment. The Buddha said, “Be mindful in the four postures of the body”; walking, standing, sitting and lying down. 

Things Change and Happiness Fades Away

Many people strive to secure happiness, inner peace, tranquility, and harmony through wealth, power and social status. They seek ultimate happiness through family relationships, jobs, partners, friends, and sensual pleasures. So, they strive to change the external conditions of their physical, social and political environments in various ways. They believe that when these conditions are changed in just the right way, they will become happy and peaceful. But they never pause to think that at no time will conditions ever stop changing.  Even before the fulfillment of their dreams, things will change. The promise of ultimate happiness fades away like the morning mist at daybreak.

Spending much time on unnecessary things, people today waste their precious energy. Things change, wealth fades, renown and reputation wither. We are confronted with aging, different types of diseases. We are incapacitated by stress and depression. The Buddha pointed to the source of our agitation and unease: “Mind is the forerunner of all mental and physical actions.” (mano pubbangamā dhammā). So, if one wastes or diverts one’s mental energy in unproductive, unwholesome ways, suffering is inevitable. 

But wholesome mental energy can be developed, nurtured and used well to serve others, while at the same time generating happiness and solace for ourselves. The Buddha developed his mental energy to a supreme level through which he attained enlightenment, the state of human perfection. The technique of developing one’s mental energy is meditation. This is, in other words, being in the present moment. As long as we are not in the present moment, we are pondering either the future or the past. Both bring us nothing but unhappiness, stress, depression, discomfort, and weariness of body and mind. 

One night, a certain deity came to the Buddha (since the Buddha was the teacher of both deities and humans). The deity illuminated the whole monastery with his effulgent beauty and asked this question in a verse:

“Those who dwell deep in the forest, 
Peaceful, leading the holy life, 
Eating but a single meal a day;                                                                   
Why is their complexion so serene?”

Then the Buddha replied, in a verse:
“They do not sorrow over the past,
Nor do they hanker for the future.                       
They maintain themselves with what is present;                                                   
Hence, their complexion is so serene.                                                             
Through hankering for the future,                                                                  
Through sorrowing over the past,                                                                     
Fools dry up and wither away,                                                                    
Like a green reed cut down.”

The Buddha’s constant admonition to his disciples was to develop mindfulness in the present moment. This is the secret of happiness, and the avoidance of all sorts of discomfort, distress, stress or depression. As they practiced the teaching of the Buddha, being mindful in the present moment, they led a peaceful and happy life. They were like birds flying through the sky, leaving no furrows behind them or like a drop of water on the lotus leaf. Mindfulness, certainly, brings forth miracles. Right mindfulness is at the heart of the teaching of the Buddha. 

Serenity and Insight in Tandem (Samatha-Vipassanā Yuganaddha)

When it comes to serenity and insight meditation, we must understand these are not two different meditations. These are two levels of meditation. When practicing one, we can experience the other as well. Without practicing serenity one cannot practice and experience insight.  Once, Ven. Ananda categorized four ways of practicing. They are:

. Insight preceded by serenity (samatha pubbangamā vipassanā)
. Serenity preceded by insight (vipassanā pubbangamā samatha)
. Serenity and insight in tandem (samatha vipassanā yuganaddha)
. Dhamma restlessness (Dhamma uddhacca: Seized by excitation about the dhamma and, as a consequence, one develops serenity and abandons the fetters)
As we see, for the completion of the practice one has to practice both serenity and insight. When practiced in tandem, there will be a balance and growth in one’s practice. When we study and practice his technique of meditation we come to understand the Buddha has taught us to practice both together.  For instance, from the beginning to the end of the Satipatthāna Sutta, in which the Buddha designed this excellent technique, he teaches us first serenity and then insight.

How to Put it Into Practice

First, one has to find a suitable place where there are few disturbances. We’ll never find a place completely free from disturbances in a world full of humankind’s noise and busy activity. Even though you may live in the deep woods there are airplanes to disturb you overhead. Just strive to find a congenial, relatively quiet and secluded place and try to sit properly. If you can, sit cross-legged but that is not a must, if your body won’t fold that way. The most important thing is keeping the body erect. Then, closing your eyes visualize your whole body from the top of your head to the tips of your toes and relax the body. Relax your mind and keep a calm and quiet mind. Then, with this clear mind give your full attention to observing your breath. Watch it as it comes in and out, naturally and smoothly, calming your body and mind so you come to the state of serenity.  

Again and again practice this meditation for several days and weeks, developing your serenity. Do not cling to anything, any visual object, mental formations or any kind of pleasurable or painful sensations. Just observe them and let them all go. What is to be understood clearly is the nature of changing. So whenever you sit in meditation, strive to understand the changing nature of your breath and the changing nature of all other things in the world. If you can understand this changing nature of all phenomena, that is what is called insight (vipassanā). That is what is called impermanency (anicca). Whenever you experience impermanence you will experience the other two characteristics too, namely dissatisfaction and soullessness because these three are interdependent. The person who sees one sees the others as well. 

When one sees these three characteristics of existence through wisdom (insight) one turns away from suffering. This is the way to purity. The Buddha said, “All conditioned things are impermanent, when one sees this through wisdom one turns away from suffering - this is the way to purity.”  Purity means not purity of this ever-decaying body but purity of mind, mental clarity. The dust-free state of mind. This leads to imperturbability and Nibbāna.  This is the goal of all Buddhists. This excellent technique of meditation was rediscovered and properly taught by the Buddha 2,600 years ago for the benefit and happiness of all beings. 

Let us all strive to understand this technique and practice accordingly so that we all can one day realize the three characteristics of existence together with the Four Noble Truths and Dependent Origination and so attain Nibbāna. 

May we all attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana!

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