Keep Calm and Carry On

Since my last post I have moved to New Mexico and become a part of the Albuquerque Vipassana Sangha. What I see there is the same thing that I see in other local groups and at retreats and anywhere that people are trying to master the art of meditation, and that is a great deal of struggle.

At last night’s meeting the issue was impermanence. This is, of course, one of the core teachings of the Buddha, that all conditioned things arise and pass away, and that except for Nibbana (Nirvana) all things are conditioned. This can be a very unsettling notion. And when you link impermanence to the two other marks of conditioned existence – non-self (yikes!) and dukkha (suffering, stress, un-satisfactoriness – more yikes!) – it all sounds pretty depressing.

Believe it or not, the Buddha’s teaching are really good news, but that message tends to get lost sometimes, especially in the way in which the Buddha’s teachings have migrated to the West. Instead of the good news getting put front and center, it tends to get relegated to sitting in the back of the room.

I read once that the Buddha did not teach the Four Noble Truths to new converts. It was considered too counter-productive to do so. The Four Noble Truths, along with the Three Marks of Existence (as noted – impermanence, non-self, and dukkha), and dependent co-arising (the Buddhist law of causality), are part of the wisdom practices (pañña, in Pali) of Buddhadharma. It is pretty heady stuff.

Now it takes a certain amount of wisdom simply to undertake this practice. Having said that, the Buddha is often said to have taught sīla-samādhi-pañña. Sīla is ethics/morality/virtue. Samādhi is concentration. Pañña is wisdom, or discernment.

Further, the practice actually proceeds in this order (more or less… the process is iterative and at the end non-linear). You start with the cultivation of a firm ethical base. You stop doing the things that cause harm to yourself and others. You start doing more and more things that bring you and other people happiness. It is very hard to proceed with a meditation practice if your ethical life is a mess.

For the Buddha’s monks and nuns, the practice of virtue was and is serious stuff. There are over 200 precepts for monks, over 300 for nuns. The novice monastic has to memorize them all and be able to chant them. It is part of the ceremony for full ordination. And thereafter the precepts are chanted on the full moon and new moon days of every lunar month as part of the Uposatha observance. There is also a reflection and confession component to the precepts (pāṭimokkha) recitation ceremony. It is an active practice.

Most Buddhists in the world do not practice meditation, but they do observe the ethical precepts. Or at least they are supposed to.

For the meditator, at least the way the Buddha taught, the next step is to establish a sense of well-being. In the Ānāpānasati Sutta, the Buddha’s most complete teaching on meditation, the first four steps are as follows:

  1. Note when the breaths are short.
  2. Note when the breaths are long.
  3. Become aware of the whole body.
  4. “Tranquilize” the whole body.

In other words, the start to a meditation practice is to learn how to develop serenity, tranquility, calm. This leads to the next two steps in the Buddha’s instructions:

  1. rapture (pītī in Pali)
  2. happiness (sukha)

It is only by step 7 that what have come to be called insight or vipassana practices – discernment – come into play. In step 7 the meditator is instructed to be sensitive to “mental activities”. Even then, the nest step – step 8 – is to “tranquilize” mental activities.

Thus the whole of what is being taught here is the cultivation of serenity, to calm the body, to calm the mind.

Now very few “Vipassana” meditators will recognize this practice. They are taught simply to be with whatever arises. If the knee hurts, just stay with it. If painful thoughts arise, just be with them. What a miserable way to practice; it is completely counter-productive. You are trying to do wisdom – discernment – practices without having a firm base. You do not have enough calm and stability and well-being to effectively cultivate discernment. It is like trying to play soccer without having enough stamina to run for more than 2 minutes.

The correct way to practice is to learn to work with the breath in a pleasant and satisfying way. This is cultivating the garden soil from which wisdom will grow.

Everyone knows how to take a deep breath in order to release stress. That is a great starting point. There are many, many practices for developing concentration, tranquility and serenity. But one of the best and simplest ones that I know is that when the mind has wandered or is anxious or is spinning or doing anything that causes stress, simply take a nice, satisfying breath. It doesn’t have to be overly dramatic. Simply learn how to take a breath that feels good. Reward yourself for your moment of awareness. Note the stress, then take a breath that feels good. Feel the breath go all the way in and all the way out. Feel it in the whole body. You might even take another, and another. Follow the Buddha’s instructions. Tranquilize the body. Tranquilize feelings. Tranquilize mental formations. When you can do this, you have a firm base for looking deeply into the majesty of how everything works.

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