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This morning we examine the nature of meditation itself, seeing it in terms of awareness, attention and method. We begin with the background of the modern lay meditation movement, and move on to the nature of the meditation method taught by Mahāsī Sayādaw.
[Please note that this recording cuts out after 20 minutes. The new recorder is going through its teething troubles!] We introduce the concept of “mindfulness,” which is the standard translation of the Pāli word sati. Sati literally means “memory,” and mindfulness refers to the act of remembering the present. The practice of mindfulness is associated with the felt continuity of awareness, and this is what we are aiming for in our practice.
[Please note that the new recorder’s teething troubles continue, and the recording for this talk did not work. The talk here was given at BMIMC in September 2016.] We find ourselves alienated from the experience of body because of our habit of experiencing body through our concepts of the body, rather than through the direct experience of body sensation. Here we experiment with the four mahābhūta, or “great appearances,” earth element (pathavī dhātu), air element (vayo dhātu), fire element (tejo dhātu) and water element (āpo dhātu). These represent the elemental qualities of physical experience.
We introduce satipaṭṭhāna, the applications of mindfulness, as a “one-way street” (ekāyana magga) that leads direct to nibbāna. We examine the meaning of nibbāna, looking at it as an affective term that indicates life without the fires of attachment, aversion and delusion. And we discuss the relationship between the practice of tracking experience over time, and nibbāna itself.
This morning we experiment in using breathing as a meditation object, finding it as movement in the body, or air element (vayo dhātu). We practise precision in our mindfulness of breathing by tracking its location, its length, its shape or form, its clarity, its beginnings and ends. This opens up issues regarding both the nature of breathing and our relationship to breathing.
We examine the central activity of satipaṭṭhāna, that of anupassanā, or “tracking” experience over time. We do this by unpacking the sentence, “Here a bhikkhu, surrendering longing and sorrow for the world, lives tracking body as body … feeling as feeling … heart/mind as heart/mind … phenomena as phenomena, ardent, clearly understanding and mindful.”
This morning we look at what the Buddha means by vedanā, or “feeling.” We begin with a meditation experiment and go on to explore what the role of affect in the Buddha’s teaching, and in our practice.
Tonight we look at one part of Wu-men’s comment to Case 1 of his Wu-men Kuan, where he writes of cutting off the “mind road.” We look at how the mind creates a self and his/her world through concepts, and how we tend to live in our concepts about the world rather than the world itself. We look at how we can respond to this situation through the practice that Dōgen Zenji calls “non-thinking.”
A fundamental principle of satipaṭṭhāna practice is to take what distracts us, what prevents us from practising, and make it our meditation object. Here we look at using the thought-stream as meditation object. We learn how to attend to the process of thinking rather than get caught up in the contents of our thoughts.
We begin our investigation of sīla, the aspect of the Buddha’s teaching that covers what we call morality or ethics. We begin with seeing the Buddha as teaching a form of virtue ethics, where the focus is on training ourselves to become a certain kind of person, one who has certain virtues. We see sīla as being concerned chiefly with harmony, both psychological and social, and look in particular at the relationship between sīla and samādhi.
We apply the principles of satipaṭṭhāna practice and apply them to making emotion a meditation object. We see how emotion is complex, constructed from physical sensation, thought-streams and feeling, and learn how to discover the emptiness of emotion by focusing on its elemental qualities.
We explore sīla as the basis of the moral virtues. We begin with the fivefold ethical training (pañca sīla), or five precepts. We go on to look at the Buddha’s attitude to authority, including moral authority, and see that he left us in charge of working out our own degree of ethical practice. Finally, we go to Kālāma Sutta (AN 3.65) to see how the foundation of sīla is the capacity to distinguish between the wholesome (kusala) and the unwholesome (akusala).
Here we learn to structure our attention more loosely, to enable us to see the object of awareness within the broader context of our attentional field. When we hold an object too closely we may miss the context within which it is held, including the one who is attending to it. When we learn to hold the object more loosely, we can appreciate the context within which it is held, and understanding (sampajañña, paññā) emerges within this context.
We continue our exploration of sīla to see how it applies to lay people. We find that the Buddha assumes that lay people find their satisfaction through the normal, everyday satisfactions of material wellbeing and family and friend relationships. We move on to Kūṭadanta Sutta (DN 5) where we see the Buddha’s social ethics, in particular his attitude to distributive justice. Then we see the importance of caring for ourselves through the story of the acrobat’s daughter (SN 47.19). Finally, we look at the virtue of generosity (cāga) as a necessary foundation of civilised life.
We continue our exploration of how we can structure attention by practising indriya saṃvāra, or sense restraint. This practice represents a radical relaxation in which we rest our awareness and simply receive sense data without doing anything, without getting entangled in the data. This practice makes us sensitive to how difficult it is to stop “doing.”
We survey the four satipaṭṭhānas, the foundations or domains of mindfulness. These are the places where we station our mindfulness: body (kāya); feeling (vedanā); heart/mind (citta); and dharma or dharmas (dhammānupassanā). We see how the first three of these domains represent a linear progression from less to greater ethical sensitivity; and we also see how feeling holds the practice together. The fourth satipaṭṭhāna has two aspects. Tracking dharma (singular) involves learning the conceptual framework that gives meaning to the experiences we undergo. Tracking the dharmas (plural) entails learning to perceive our experienced world as no more than a flow of empty phenomena.
This morning we sum up what we have learned over the week. The practice of satipaṭṭhāna is very simple: Be aware. When we attempt this over time, mindfulness becomes central. We remember the present, tracking the unfolding of experience over time. We discuss the characteristics of this practice, in both the retreat context and in our normal, workaday world.