Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Meditation. It's easy; it's effortless.

Dismissing the commentaries, construing discourses to accord with one's own view

A Sri Lankan monk invited Wisdom Quarterly to see an American monk speak in Pasadena. Ven. Vimalaramsi (, a tall and imposing recluse from the Ozarks mountains in rural Missouri, has been a Buddhist monk for decades and is fond of conducting retreats. We went. We saw. We were surprised. He began by dismissing the enormous and influential body of commentarial literature and proceeded to interpret meditation according to his own views of the sutras (discourses). In a sense, he became the commentator and ultimate authority backed principally by his own insights and reference to other sutras.

It was amusing and amazing since one rarely sees vigorous, quotidian stands like this from old (i.e., long since gone forth) monks. He was entertaining since his newly rediscovered teachings seem to center around three novel principles.

  1. Smile. (We quite like this one, as it is an outward expression communicating joy. "We are the happy ones," the venerable repeatedly quoted the Buddha as having said (although no specific citation was given).
  2. Rest your attention on the entire body rather than the body-of-the-breath; don't "concentrate" it there with effort!
  3. Relax by releasing the tension in the meninges (the sac encasing the brain, which tightens whenever we experience any kind of tension).

This simple third act seems to be the most significant to Ven. Vimalaramsi, an American who spent decades in Asia studying with teachers in Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. His principal teacher was the scholar-monk U Silananda. But he ventured off to find his own way. Discovering that the Buddha must have known of this tension in the head and the need to relax it -- to release any craving to attain -- he found the peace he sought. He came back West to teach.

The most enjoyable part of the evening was an unsmiling speaker debating with a previously deeply absorbed meditator about her "serious" countenance. That meditator, an expert on Dependent Origination, is able to attain jhana (tranquil absorption) at will. That, however, is not what Ven. Vimalaramsi calls "jhana." No, jhana, he insists, is easy. It is not one-pointedness of mind. It is aware and light, not deep. (To prove it he cites Sariputra, the male monk foremost in wisdom, and utterly rejects Buddhaghosa and other great commentators who explain meditation details in ways simply not found in the texts). Jhana is something to be attained within hours or days, certainly not months and years, he went on to say. It is normal consciousness and not associated with a light (nimitta) known as the "counterpart sign" on which one concentrates to the point of full absorption (literally merging with this internal light).

More seriously, using the sutras to misconstrue the depth and significance of Dependent Origination, the speaker made the serious error of suggesting that the 12 links in the chain that comprise the teaching are all within a single life. Enlightened teachers, past and present, insist on multiple lives for a proper understanding of this profound teaching, that is, for it to have its liberating effect. It is the relinking consciousness, after all, which links lives, that leads to incessant rebirth leading to the entire mass of suffering.

Nirvana, freedom from all suffering, depends on undoing the chain such that birth does not reestablish itself. Like Thailand's maverick monastic, Ajahn Buddhadasa, Ven. Vimalaramsi seems to have a bright future telling students it's easy, it's available, there's not much to it, which is just what we'll pay good money to hear. He'll be holding a retreat at Dhamma Dena, Ruth Denison's center in Joshua Tree in March, 2010.


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