Monday, February 9, 2015

Insight meditation doesn't work! What now?

 Maya, Dhr. Seven, Amber Larson, CC Liu, Wisdom Quarterly

Wisdom Quarterly reader Bettina (eyegotcaught) recently wrote in after having read When Goenka Goes Hardcore (meditation):

"I have been frustrated with Vipassana [Insight Meditation] because I had this intuitive feeling that something is missing to the practice. Nevertheless I haven't managed to find a practice that makes me trust that there is a way to achieve enlightenment with it. I would be very grateful if you could give me an advice. Kind regards, Bettina" (2/5/15).

The question is very easy, but our answer is still theoretical. It is to give you an overview of the situation. Read through previous posts, and you are sure to find that we have mentioned this many times before. Trying to practice insight meditation for enlightenment without right concentration (jhana, first four absorptions) is like trying to make TNT (dynamite) or nitroglycerin without glycerin. The bang potential needs fuel, and that fuel is the sweet glycerin molecule.

Dry insight for all! (Dhamma)
Nowadays the Theravada tradition -- particularly in the Burmese lineage of U Ba Khin, Goenka's teacher, but also in the popular Sinhalese and Siamese, Sri Lankan and Thai, approaches -- is all about "dry insight." We are late in the game, it's a decadent age (Kali Yuga), there is no time to develop all of the steps the way the Buddha taught, so just go for the most important or distinctive thing, namely, vipassana.

This is a sad development that proves the old maxim that "The purpose of organized religion is to keep us away from spirituality and direct experience." What is a firecracker without fuel? A dud.

How to become enlightened
I know and I see, but the "mind door" was in the heart not the head.

Siddhartha did not succeed by going straight to contemplating the various "foundations" of mindfulness -- the body, feelings, mind, and mind-objects. Instead, he followed the ancient and established path of developing skill in concentration (samadhi). But "concentration" is a terrible word to use in translation because in English it has the connotation of strenuous effort, trying, and strain. That is exactly what does NOT work.

"Oh, but look at the ascetic Siddhartha and how he said, 'I won't stand up from this meditation mat until I reach the goal, better that my blood dry up and my body shrivel, but I still won't move until I'm enlightened.'" It is exactly that kind of bull-headed "efforting," strain, and desperation that fails. And Siddhartha failed up until the point he succeeded.

So, yes, let's look at the example of the ascetic Siddhartha. It is as if everyone misses the most important part of the story of his enlightenment and how he became th Buddha. Do this experiment: Ask people HOW Siddhartha became enlightened and you're bound to hear how he gritted his teeth, girded his loins, made a supremely firm resolve, and never gave up until he won the goal by sheer virile effort (viraya) and radical exertion.

One cannot grit one's teeth and bust this out, exert for it suddenly. It's as if people are saying that severe asceticism works. Does it? Is that what Siddhartha the Buddha recommended? In large part that is what was blocking him. And it was only when he realized that and relaxed, let go, that he underwent the impersonal process of realization. 

We do not enlighten ourselves, nor do buddhas. But no one else can. We must make the effort and do the play/work. What is the game, what is the job, what is an overview of the necessary ingreditent to make a powerful thrust that absorbs us into a natural process that does itself? The name of the game is BALANCE.

Okay, what are we balancing? In the most general terms, everything is spelled out in the 37 Requisites of Enlightenment (bodhipakkhiya dhamma). That is the most complete list, but there is no reason to get that detailed. Did the Buddha ever say, "Do what I did"? NO. He said quite the opposite: "Don't waste time doing what I did pursuing the extremes of sensual delight (as a hedonistic prince) or of severe asceticism. Follow the Middle Way. What is the "Middle Way"?

The path avoids both extremes, all extremes in views and so on. It is generally spoken of in terms of the Noble Eightfold Path. But what that path is will become apparent by intuition when one has a vision of the Dharma at stream entry, the first stage of enlightenment (bodhi) which includes a direct glimpse and experience of nirvana.

How do we get to stream entry? First and foremost is virtue, temporary blameless conduct until the mind/heart is free of remorse and distraction. Behave just for this moment without worrying about the past or how you will wish to behave in the future. The benefits of keeping the precepts are immeasurable. And one of the best things that can possibly happen as a result and fruition of virtue is concentration. The better translation for this word (samadhi) is "collectedness," non-scatteredness, non-distraction.

In positive terms, it is one-pointedness (eka-gata), unification, union of breath and mind/attention. Be here now. There's only the now. Stay here. Rather than commenting on reality, just observe it over time, for the duration, until the mind sees the Three Marks of Existence. When it does, it will let go. All by itself, without effort or strain, it will let go. If "I" try to let go, I will not be able to. Siddhartha was not able to, so what chance have I, my ego, my effort, my willpower? Why would I rush to do something prematurely and poorly that reality can do perfectly with the right practice?

Fully enlightened with magical powers, too
Self will is not the way it works. The process, the method taught by the Buddha, works. So long as we put that practice into practice, into effect, it will result in the goal the Buddha experienced. What he saw and knew we will know and see. The experience of liberation for a disciple does not differ from that of a buddha, a "supremely enlightened teacher." The goal here is not to become a world teacher, as Mahayana Buddhism loftily claims and has everyone vow to do. The goal here is to "wake up" as quickly as possible as if our turban were on fire and we were trying to stop the flames before they consumed us.

Siddhartha saw that he had failed for a long time and wondered what the Middle Way was. He intuited that the meditative absorptions, beginning with the blissful ones, to the calm to the equanimous were the way. By themselves they cannot be, but coupled with insight meditation, they are. This is what Siddhartha realized, the turning point that turned his futile practices to almost effortless realization.

(It's not really completely effortless because one must sit down, slow down, calm body and mind, and cultivate the Factors of Enlightenment, seven of the 37 Requisites of Enlightenment, but it feels like that in practice. It's not about more doing, but about less. We must let the mind/heart settle then rouse it to insight. It cannot be roused to insight while scattered, distracted, unconcentrated, and unpurified. The Path of Purification is all about hands on practicality, as is the Abhidharma from the Burmese point of view, as they were the great keepers of it. See our English translation co-written with the accomplished nun Sayalay Susila. These are not theories but practices built up from the commentaries based on real-world ancient Buddhist teachers and teachings).

If we value and protect our virtue, concentration/collectedness of mind can come easily. It is with this stable foundation that one can successfully take up the insight exercises (as outlined but not detailed in the Satipatthana Sutra, "The Four Foundations of Mindfulness") that produce knowledge and vision, knowing and seeing. Not detailed? No, a skillful meditation teacher is needed for that or we will spend lifetimes trying to reinvent the wheel when a living tradition exists to help us now. Our path is not to behave like would-be buddhas trying to find the path to enlightenment. It has been found. See the texts, see the Teacher, see the community of successful disciples. The Three Jewels or Triple Gem are Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

The Buddha is well gone, but the other two are still here even if they are hard to find. A genuine heart, a pure aspiration, an effort to find them will prove fruitful. Why should it? That is hard to say, but it worked. It will work. "When the student is ready, the teacher will come" it is said. When we look, we find. When we ask, it is given. It's not because a God or gods get involved, but the universe arranges itself so that we can succeed. That may not be the way it works, but it does work. It is experiential even if we do not know why the universe helped us or why our attention and intention resulted in commensurate results, but that's karma for you. We will get as we give, and the best giving is giving for the sake of attaining nirvana. It is a parami, a "perfection" of giving. Nothing is higher, nothing is better.

What is "right concentration"? It is one of the limbs of the Noble Eightfold Path, the limbs of which should be thought of as spokes of a wheel with no one limb being more or less important than the others. It is developing the first four absorptions (jhanas) just enough to enter the fourth absorption at will. Less concentration might work under certain circumstances, but there is no need to short shrift oneself. We need all the calm, concentration, tranquillity, and serenity we can get. It will come in handy. Again, the name of the game is BALANCE. What are we balancing?

At some point one balances the Five Faculties or Powers. Too much calm leads to sleepiness, so we balance it with energy. Too much faith leads to blind faith, so we balance it with wisdom. too much wisdom leads to cunning, so we balance it with faith (confidence in the Three Jewels). The fifth is mindfulness, which we can never have too much of, so keep up the bare-awareness, the dispassionate observation, the cool attention, the presence of mind, vigilance, wakefulness, clear comprehension. 

That is, there is no need when actively practicing to be thinking about the practice. Think ahead of time, think afterward, but the path is not thinking. it is doing. When, for example, walking, walk. Thinking about walking is not appropriate. When contemplating, contemplate. Don't think about contemplating. When meditating, don't thinking about meditating -- such as, Oh, how is this going, this is fun, this is cool, I'm very spiritual, I can't do this, I'm not sure, and so on and so on -- meditate. To meditate (bhavana) is to "bring into being," to cultivate, to develop, to maintain and bring to perfection something beneficial that has arisen.

In Brief
In your case, Bettina, co-cultivate calm concentration (samatha, samma samadhi, jhana, absorption). Or drop the mindfulness (contemplation)-exercises and use mindfulness (bare attention) as a constituent of concentration. Play up to at least the first absorption, which is not too far from normal consciousness, and then watch your Vipassana take off.

And keep asking questions when doubt arises. This is the time and place to ask them, so feel free to write in all you like. It helps everyone. But when practicing intensively, drop the doubting and questioning and turn to having confidence in the Buddha, that he really was enlightened, that he really knew what he was talking about, that the Dharma really leads one forward, that those who practice in accordance with the Buddha's Dharma (a "community" called the Noble Sangha) gain the results promised. Get a teacher (we recommend Tina Rasmussen or Stephen Snyder, easy to find, up to the task, and able to speak fluent English).

Finally, if you meditate, you WILL meet with the Five Hindrances. Be prepared. Forewarned is forearmed with the immediately effective antidotes. Read our "Ask A Ninja" series. The opposite of the Five Hindrances are the Five Factors of Absorption (jhana-anga).

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