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RE: Questions from a Beginner

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Questions from a Beginner
Answer
5/2/13 7:23 PM
Hi Guys,

My name is Jeff and this is my first post on these boards. I am relatively new to Vipassana Meditation and was hoping to get some feedback and advice regarding the practice.

I am a bit confused regarding potential differences between Vipassana and Samatha meditation. More specifically, does the Mahasi Sayadaw method cultivate concentration? In other words is the Mahasi method a "hybrid" of both Vipassana and Samatha meditation? I am confused by the distinction between Samatha and Vipassana. From what I understand, concentration is necessary but not sufficient to attain nibbana while Vipassana is sufficient?

I have also seen people distinguish Vipassana and Noting meditation. Is noting one particular form of Vipassana meditation or another form of contemplative practice altogether? Lastly, can anyone elucidate the differences between Mahasi Sayadaw's method and the method (I believe anapanasati, though I may be mistaken) described in Bhante Gunaratana's Mindfulness in Plain English. I am more inclined to go with the Mahasi style because it is difficult for me to monitor my breath at the nostrils. I find it much easier to follow the abdomen.

Please feel free to provide any advice and thank you very much for your help.

Cheers,
Jeff

RE: Questions from a Beginner
Answer
5/2/13 11:34 PM as a reply to Jeff Lin.
Hi Jeff,

Here are the answers to your questions...

I am a bit confused regarding potential differences between Vipassana and Samatha meditation. More specifically, does the Mahasi Sayadaw method cultivate concentration? In other words is the Mahasi method a "hybrid" of both Vipassana and Samatha meditation? I am confused by the distinction between Samatha and Vipassana. From what I understand, concentration is necessary but not sufficient to attain nibbana while Vipassana is sufficient?


Lets say you are a couch potato training to become and olympic discuss thrower. Do you train your strength with weights or your skill at throwing a discuss? Or both ? Or one first and then the other ?

The distinction between Samatha and Vipassana is similar in nature. With Samatha training is analogous to strength and Vipassana to skill.

Simply practicing throwing the discus will make you stronger to some extent. And becoming stronger wont hurt your throwing ability.

The analogy isn't perfect but it gives you an idea of the interrelationship between Samatha and Vipassana.

The way most other traditions do it is to get the mind trained for calmness with Samatha, and then to examine the mental perception of the self using Vipassana style techniques.

The Mahasi noting method consists of constantly interrupting the verbal narrative of the mind and thus requires less skill in Samantha to do Vipassana and gain insight.

There are a few downsides to gaining insight this way, but outweighed by the positives, imo. Also the downsides are easy to correct later.

I have also seen people distinguish Vipassana and Noting meditation. Is noting one particular form of Vipassana meditation or another form of contemplative practice altogether?


Noting is a type of Burmese Vippasna mediation. But Vipassana is kind of a loose term.

Please feel free to provide any advice and thank you very much for your help.


Have a goal. Keep a journal. Listen to instructions in the short term But in the medium to long term experiment with different methods and find what works for you at any given point in time.

RE: Questions from a Beginner
Answer
5/3/13 12:18 AM as a reply to (D Z) Dhru Val.
Thank you very much for your insight, it certainly cleared things up.

I have one follow up question: in your opinion ,what are some useful forms of samatha meditation and if possible, can you provide some instruction or links to online resources? I'd like to do some strength training before practicing 'throwing the discus".

Cheers,
Jeff

RE: Questions from a Beginner
Answer
5/4/13 2:38 AM as a reply to Jeff Lin.
Jeff Lin:
Thank you very much for your insight, it certainly cleared things up.

I have one follow up question: in your opinion ,what are some useful forms of samatha meditation and if possible, can you provide some instruction or links to online resources? I'd like to do some strength training before practicing 'throwing the discus".

Cheers,
Jeff


You can try Ian And's intructions...
All purpose Jhana thread

I personally got a lot out of reading Ajan Brahm's Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond. It has solid instructions but there is a lot of preachy theorizing in the book too. You can find the first few chapters for free here.

Don't get too caught up in reading instructions and stuff though, the split of the between time spent reading and practicing should probably be something like 85% practice 15% reading.

More practice will allow you to have more experiential reference points to correctly understand and apply the pointers you get from reading instructions.

RE: Questions from a Beginner
Answer
5/4/13 1:07 PM as a reply to Jeff Lin.
I found Leigh Brasington's article "Instructions for Entering Jhana" helpful. He has other articles also.

Leigh Brasington on Jhana

RE: Questions from a Beginner
Answer
5/19/13 4:20 AM as a reply to Jeff Lin.
I found the instructions for breath meditation in Thanissaro's "With each and every breath" very effective for training concentration, especially because of the emphasis on making the breath and meditation in general into a pleasant experience. This can be a relief from the roughness that vipassana sometimes brings. (PDF here).

But beware, there is also a lot of hardcore theravada "preaching and theorizing" in the book, so you may have to filter out what's reasonable & useful for you.

RE: Questions from a Beginner
Answer
5/19/13 11:11 AM as a reply to Christian Calamus.
FWIW, I come from a Tibetan Buddhist background, albeit a very liberal one, and I found Each and Every Breath easy to assimilate. I am something of a Thanissaro fan boy, though. emoticon

RE: Questions from a Beginner
Answer
5/20/13 11:01 AM as a reply to fivebells ..
Thanks for transcribing this, Fivebells. I'm putting his talk and your transcription here.

"Seeds of Becoming" talk by the monk Thanisarro

Try to put aside all your other issues, just focus right here. 'Cause
all the big issues in life get played out right here, in fact the seeds
for all of them are right here in the present moment.

I've said a number of times, how the Buddha's teachings on causality are
like modern teachings on chaos theory. One of the basic principles of
chaos theory is called 'scale invariance.' That what's happening on the
macro level is the same thing as is happening on the micro level, no
matter what the size of your frame of reference, no matter what your
focus, it's always the same things happening, simply writ large or writ
small. And it's convenient for us, because when this principle applies
to our awareness, it means we can watch the small things happening right
here, right now, and they teach us the lessons we need to know about the
big things.

And so this is why we come into the present moment, not because it's
simply a nice place to be, because that's not always the case, sometimes
the present moment can be pretty miserable. But, the important issues
that are happening in life are happening right here. The Buddha's
teachings on bhava, or becoming, get played out right here. That's the
basic condition for birth, and the whole round of aging, illness and
death.

It's a hard word to translate, 'becoming' isn't ideal, but it's hard to
find a better word. It's basically a state of being, and it can be
either at the micro level, the little worlds the mind creates for
itself, or at the macro level, the human realm as a whole, that's a
bhava, and seeds for the large one are right here in the small ones.
These are the worlds the mind creates. You can think about, say, your
home, and there it appears right in your mind, the world of your home.
Not the whole thing, but enough of a facsimile to say yeah, that's my
home.

And then you can enter into that little world, and adjust it and
interact with the various elements in there. And then after a while you
might lose interest and the mind creates another state of being for
itself, another little world, and it goes from world to world to world
like this. Or, a better way saying it is, these worlds appear, and then
they disappear, and another one appears in its place. And it's because
the mind does this, that it takes birth, that it provides the causes for
larger levels of becoming and then it takes birth in them.

So this is the process we want to understand if we want to get beyond
aging illness and death, not go through the cycles again and again and
again, we have to know what's going on. How the little cycles behave
and that way we learn how the big cycles behave, what exactly is the
process that keeps these things going. As the Buddha once said at the
moment of his awakening, "House builder, I have seen you, through
countless births, build these homes. And now I've seen the house
builder and taken apart the house, and now the house builder will never
build another one again." You want to see that process of how the mind
creates these little homes for itself, with such force of habit that if
it can't create a good one for itself, it'll create a bad one for
itself. All it asks is that you have that place to go. Because the
mind has a fear for having no place to go. This is what's called
bhava-tanha, it's one of the forms of craving that leads to suffering.
Vibhava-tanha, that's a more controversial term, because it it's not
defined anywhere in the canon. Some passages indicated that it's desire
for annihilation, in other words that you don't have anything that has
to go anywhere, you're tired of going to these different places, but you
want to end up in a place where everything gets destroyed, or everything
stops so there's no more becoming. And the Buddha said that kind of
desire leads to suffering as well, because what it does is it takes the
mind to a strange kind of becoming. It doesn't end the process, it just
freezes it for a while. It's like those cyborgs in science fiction
movies that get frozen for a number of centuries and then come out still
functioning. And the mind goes into these strange states, you can
freeze the process, but that doesn't end the process, it can start up
again.

But the macro level is being played out here on the micro level, so
let's look at it, let's create a state of becoming. It's what we're
doing as we practice concentration, we create a little inner world for
the mind. First it's just a spot in the body and then you expand it to
fill the whole body. And then you try to maintain it. And in doing
that you engage all the forms of fabrication: physical, verbal, mental.
In other words, there's the breath and that's the physical fabrication,
then there's directed thought and evaluation, those are the verbal
forms, and then there's feeling and perception. And these are the basic
building blocks from which you create this world, the world of a
concentrated mind.

And you use your powers of directed thought and evaluation to work out
the disturbances, to filter them away or comb them out. A sense of
tension or tightness in the breath, feelings of blockage in the mind,
work through these things so that the elements of disturbance get more
and more and more refined. So you can see the state of becoming in and
of itself as clearly as possible, in terms of its basic building blocks.
And that way you can begin to take it apart. Because you see that
there's really not much there, even in a good state of concentration.

Don't be too quick to take it apart, though. Get a little a bit of
concentration and take it apart too fast, then the mind has no place to
settle down. I knew a monk one time in Thailand, who after a couple of
years of meditation finally got his mind to settle down in a really nice
state of concentration. He went to tell another friend of his (they
were both out in the forest), and the friend said "Watch out, you're
going to get stuck on that, make sure you don't get stuck on the
concentration." So the guy stopped, did his best not to get into
concentration, he was told to start analyzing things, developing
insight, so this monk just started going all over the place, just kept
looking out, out, out and wasn't able to come back in, in, in. By the
time I met up with him, he'd gotten to the point where he couldn't get
his mind to concentrate at all. And it was a real shame, eventually he
disrobed.

This is what happens when you abort the process. Because you have to
get attached to the state of concentration for you to really understand
it. You want to keep coming back, coming back, coming back, because the
more familiar you are with it, it's like a road that you travel day
after day after day. The opportunity is there to know it in detail, and
what happens a lot of times when people travel on a road day after day
they start blanking out, actually stop noticing things. It's like a
person gets into a state of concentration and then just doesn't want to
develop any discernment, just likes the blanking out, or the stillness,
and just holds onto that and gets oblivious to other things, like the
person who drives the road from the Valley Center to Escondido every day,
after a while you just don't notice anything. It's where a lot of
people are, their brains just go into automatic pilot.

But you want to do as a meditator is not to go into automatic pilot,
just to get to know this territory as well as we can. Keep at it. Try
to figure out how you can maintain this state of concentration in all
sorts of different circumstances, because you never know when the
precise effort that you're putting into it becomes really clear. You
see, "Oh, this is how it's done, this is what's happening. This is how
those raw materials are being turned into something else," this little
world of Texas, or the world of Thailand, or wherever the world happens
to be at the time.

So the more consistent you are in maintaining this state, whatever your
activities, the more the chance that you'll have insight into exactly
how it's created and how it's maintained, what uses it has and also how
can we take it apart. As the Buddha said, you understand the coming
into being, the passing away of these things, you understand their
allure, you understand their drawbacks and you understand the escape
from them. That's when it really gets good. Because you take the state
of concentration as your model for all your other attachments and all
your other cravings, and all the states of becoming in the mind that are
built on attachment and craving. You take this as your model and you
study it again and again and again, get really really sensitive to what
it's like to have the mind settle down, to be in a good state of
concentration, how it can create that concentration, how it can maintain
it, how it loses it. So you understand the whole process and you begin
to see precisely where in the process the craving and the attachment or
craving and clinging kick in.

So these are some of the things that can be found right here in the
present moment. The larger issues of birth, aging, illness and death;
and rebirth, re-aging, re-illness and re-death; they get played out
here, moment by moment by moment, right here in the present moment. And
if you learn how to look right here, you can see them. The more still
you can make the mind, the easier it is, both to be in a position to
look and also just to see if you've got what you're looking at stil, as
well. You're in a much better position to see even the slightest
movements. It's those slight movements that build up, get re-iterated
again and again, to build up into large movements. And small states of
being and becoming in the mind build up eventually into large ones, when
you leave this life and everything in this state of becoming begins to
come rushing in at you, and you've got to get out of the way, the mind
will naturally try to create another state of being, it will go for
another state of being, whatever comes up in the mind, if you haven't
trained the mind to be mindful and alert, you just jump right at
whatever comes.

But if you've trained it, you don't have to jump. You can step aside,
get out of the way. Not jump on these things as they happen, and that
opens up lots of new possibilities in the mind. If you haven't yet seen
the deathless, maybe at that point of death, that's the possibility that
will open as you keep yourself mindful and alert not to jump at states
of being and becoming as they form. But that's a skill which has to be
developed. The more it's developed the better your chances are of
having that skill in your repertoire when you really need it. So, why we
keep focusing back in: the present, the present, the present. We talk
sometimes about the future, we talk sometimes about the past, but the
main point is to focus on what you're doing right here, right now.

Because everything you're going to need to know is right here, right
now, so really get to know this spot as thoroughly as you can. Spend a
lot of time here, be observant. The Buddha made a comment about getting
to know other people, getting to know their virtue, getting to know
their resilience, their honesty, their wisdom. You have to focus on the
right aspects of their behavior you have to be observant and that takes
a lot of time. Well, the same thing happens and applies to your own
mind. You have to focus at the right spots, where craving and clinging
give rise to becoming. And you have to be observant and you have to be
willing to put in a lot of time. Because it's only then that you really
see. If you try to get other people to see it for you, they can't solve
the problem of craving, clinging and becoming. It's the person who
looks who solves the problem, for him or herself.

RE: Questions from a Beginner
Answer
5/20/13 11:06 AM as a reply to katy steger,thru11.6.15 with thanks.
Very kind of you, Katy. emoticon

RE: Questions from a Beginner
Answer
6/2/13 5:51 PM as a reply to (D Z) Dhru Val.
Hey DZ,

D Z:
There are a few downsides to gaining insight [using the Mahasi noting method],...


Could you say more about that?

D Z:
...but outweighed by the positives, imo. Also the downsides are easy to correct later.


And those? :-)

thx.