Introduction to Meditation
by Eric Van Horn
Copyright © 2015 Eric K. Van Horn
for free distribution
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Table of Contents
And what is the noble search? Here someone being himself subject to birth, having understood the danger in what is subject to birth, seeks the unborn supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to ageing, having understood the danger in what is subject to ageing, he seeks the unageing supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to sickness, having understood the danger in what is subject to sickness, he seeks the unailing supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to death, having understood the danger in what is subject to death, he seeks the deathless supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to sorrow, having understood the danger in what is subject to sorrow, he seeks the sorrowless supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to defilement, having understood the danger in what is subject to defilement, he seeks the undefiled supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna. This is the noble search. - [MN 26.12]
This is the first in a series of lessons that will teach you how to meditate. This type of meditation is based on the Buddha’s original teachings. The Buddha himself either gave these instructions, or they are in the spirit of what he taught. (I will try and point out which ones are which as we proceed.) The source for what the Buddha taught is the Pāli canon. Pāli is a language of ancient India. The Pāli canon is at present the best and most complete source we have for the Buddha’s original teachings.
You do not have to be a Buddhist to benefit from the Buddha’s teachings. Many of his teachings are non-sectarian, and can be of benefit to anyone. So if you find some aspect of the Buddha’s teaching to be a problem, you can put it aside for now. The best thing that you can do with a teaching that you find difficult to accept or do not understand is to file it away for future reference.
The Buddha taught a path that is called "sīla-samādhi-pañña." Sīla is the Pāli word for morality, virtue, or right conduct. Samādhi is the Pāli word for concentration or mental absorption. And pañña is the Pāli word for wisdom, or discernment.
Normally the first teaching in Buddhism is sīla. However, I think that in the West there are some problems with teaching morality first. Thus, I will begin with the practice of samādhi. Samādhi practice can be quite pleasant and enjoyable. Once you have some experience with the pleasure that comes from samādhi – the Buddha called this the “pleasure born of seclusion” - we will discuss the Buddha’s teachings on virtue.
The Purpose of Buddhist Meditation
The Buddha famously said, “In the past, monks, and also now, I teach suffering and the cessation of suffering.” [MN 22, SN 22.86] This is very useful to remember. Sometimes it may seem that one part of the path is in conflict with another part of the path. In these cases remember that the basic premise of what the Buddha taught is to end suffering.
One of the beauties of the Buddha’s path is that it is not an all or nothing proposition. You do not have to wait until you get to the end of the path to experience some freedom from suffering. The Buddha taught “the gradual path” (Pāli: anupubbasikkhā). As you progress, you get happier, more contented, more at ease, and you create fewer problems for yourself and others. It is very rewarding when you see your path open in this way. You will have an “Ah-ha!” moment, a situation where something happens, where you act in a more skillful way, and you will think to yourself, “Well, that was different!”
The Buddha always tried to teach in a way that would help people - no matter what their situation in life - to be happier and more skillful and to suffer less. To that end he gave advice to husbands and wives, children, rulers of countries, merchants, and people from all walks of life, to act more skillfully. He did not limit his teaching just to monks and nuns and lay women and lay men who dedicated their lives to a full Awakening.
So that is the first purpose of the practice: to be happier, to be more skillful, to cause less suffering.
However, there is also a super-mundane aspect to the path, and that is final liberation. This aspect of the path can be especially difficult for Westerners to accept, but it is a fundamental part of the Buddha’s teachings. He taught that we are reborn, over and over and over, endlessly, and have done so through infinite time. If we live a good, moral life, we improve the chances of having a good rebirth in the human realm or one of the heavenly realms. If we lead a less than moral life, the chances go up that we will be reborn in one of the lower realms, as a (hungry) ghost, an animal, or in one of the hell realms.
This cycle continues until one becomes fully Awakened, and a full Awakening is the ultimate fruit of the Buddha’s path.
How to Practice
The Pāli word for meditation is "bhavana." Bhavana literally means "to develop," or "to cultivate." When you plant a garden, you do not make the seeds grow. You create the optimal conditions for the seeds to grow. The seed will germinate or not based on whether the seed is strong and the conditions are proper, and if it does germinate, that will happen in its own good time. You cannot make a tomato grow overnight.
So you prepare the soil, you plant the seed, you keep it clear of weeds, you water it and feed it, and if everything goes well, after a fashion you will have some tomatoes.
This is very unlike how we are wired in the West. We are very results oriented. We want to achieve, we want to be successful. And then we start to meditate and we are given what seem like simple instructions, and we can’t do them – at least in the beginning – and we get frustrated. We may even quit. All we have done is to find a new way to make ourselves suffer.
The two qualities that will serve you best in meditation are patience and persistence. Persistence is the ability to continue relentlessly, whether or not things appear to be going well. Patience is the ability to have compassion for yourself, and to trust the process, to let it unfold. Accomplished meditators tend to have a lightness about how they deal with problems. They also tend to have a pretty good sense of humor.
There will be parts of your meditation that you find challenging and difficult. This is fine, and one of the things that you learn to do as a meditator is to take those times and not turn them into a problem. So if you have an unpleasant sitting, that is all it is, an unpleasant sitting. You don’t have to turn that into a problem.
In fact, one of the important lessons in meditation is how we take non-problems and turn them into problems, take small problems and turn them into big problems, and take bigger problems and turn them into conflagrations. The unawakened mind is a drama queen (or king) at heart.
Meditation is also like exercise. If you exercise skillfully, gradually, over time, the weak muscles get stronger. But you must do it, and you must do it skillfully. No one decides to run a marathon one day and runs 26 miles the next day. You start by running however long you can, and over time the distance you can run gets longer.
So it is with meditation. We start with a mind that is likely to be pretty wild. And by working with that mind, every day, as best we can, over time that mind gets stronger, more skillful, and happier.
So the preferred way to practice is to make sure you do it, every day, and let go of results as best you can. The results will happen if you can do those two things, and it is very gratifying - and often a little surprising - when the practice manifests.
- The purpose of meditation is to reduce and ultimately eliminate suffering for yourself. This has the equal effect of being of benefit to those around you.
- Meditation requires patience and persistence.
- Try not to turn your meditation into another problem for yourself.
- Meditation is like exercise. You must do it regularly to get results. Over time the mind will get stronger, more peaceful, and more discerning.