I had planned to make this just a two part series, but it’s gotten away from me a bit. Which is why I’ve changed the title to “Outlines of Buddhist Meditation.” Naturally, with a subject as vast as this, in the blog format the best I can do is present outlines, just tracing around the edges.
Again, my goal here is to explain some meditation practices and terms, so that when readers encounter them they will seem less confusing. Long-time practitioners probably know all this already, but I’m sure there are many others who do not.
Before moving into Mahayana meditation practices, I’d like to discuss Vipassana or “Insight” Meditation as it is practiced today. First, a reminder about mindfulness, since the word will crop up frequently. Mindfulness (sati) meditation is sustained awareness of the breath, usually by counting in and out breaths. In mindfulness, practitioners lay down all thoughts, clear the mind, and rest in the present moment without reflections on the past or anticipations of the future, or judgments of any kind.
The difference between mindfulness and “insight meditation,” I feel, is that in mindfulness when thoughts or sensations occur, you do not pay attention to them, rather you “label” them and let them go. Vipassana, on the other hand, is all about paying attention to those things.
Now, since the mid-1970’s Insight Meditation has become a fast-growing “movement.” I’ve never been drawn to it, and one reason is that I find it confusing myself. There are several distinct groups in this movement. One of them is the Insight Meditation Society, a secular group founded by Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Joseph Goldstein, followers of Mahasi Sayadaw, a late Burmese monk who was instrumental in reviving the meditation tradition within Theravada.
I’ve never been able to quite get a handle on what they mean by “Insight Meditation.” Insight obviously refers to vipassana, but here is a description of the practice from the New York Insight Meditation Center, which is affliated with IMS as the three founders sit on their Advisory Board for Teachers: “Insight meditation is a way to develop wisdom and compassion. The core of the practice is the cultivation of mindfulness. Mindfulness is like a mirror that reflects the mind and body from moment to moment, without judgments, projections or distortions.” Well, mindfulness (sati) is not exactly vipassana, unless they are using a different set of definitions, which doesn’t seem to be the case since they start with counting the breath.
Another IMS focus of practice is “loving-kindness” (metta) meditation, which is not vipassana either. And I often see “insight meditation” described as samatha-vipassana, as if it was a combined practice, yet often samatha is disregarded entirely, or used only as a preparatory practice. I don’t mean to disparage this approach. I just don’t get what it is.
Vipassana, as I understand it, involves using meditation on various subjects to realize a direct awareness of all phenomena, paying close attention to all sensory and mental processes. The goal is to move beyond mindfulness of the present moment and “see” the impermanence (anicca) and non-self (anatta) of things. I guess I have never been attracted enough to IMS style of meditation to discover if they actually ever get to that point.
Another major branch of the modern insight meditation movement is vipassana as taught by S. N. Goenka, a Burmese lay-person whose teachings resonate a little better with me. This is also a secular tradition, and Goenka maintains that the Buddha did not intend to teach religion, which is correct. Goenka’s vipassana starts with mindfulness of breath and then graduates into what he calls “self-observation,” focusing on the mind-body connection, paying attention to physical sensations. This does seem closer to actual vipassana, but in my limited exposure to this practice, it has never gone beyond basic mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation. So there you are.
Another major player in the insight meditation movement was Ajahn Chah, who taught the Thai Forest Tradition. Shinzen Young is a popular teacher who says that vipassana is mindfulness because we are paying attention to “what’s happening.” I guess what he means by mindfulness and what I mean are two different things. Again, mindfulness, to me, is being mindful of the breath but sort of un-mindful of everything else. In any case, there are many other teachers around who also have their own takes and definitions for these terms.
Samatha or tranquility meditation involves calming the mind and then attempting to achieve a high degree of mental concentration. It begins with focusing on specific subjects and progressing through a series of mental states called jhanas or absorptions.
Samatha-vipassana was intended as a twin practice. It seems, though, this has rarely been the case. Chih-i, who in the 6th Century CE was the first to truly systematize a Chinese style of Buddhist meditation, maintained that samatha-vipassana “is like the two wheels of a cart and the two wings of a bird. Partial practice of them is wrong.”
I will pick up with Chih-i in the next post, where I will describe some of the core meditation practices of the Mahayana traditions in China and Japan, perhaps along with with those in Tibet and Korea.