Thursday, February 26, 2015

Doors: the 5 Factors of Meditative Absorption

Dhr. Seven, Amber Larson, Crystal Quintero, Wisdom Quarterly; Theravadin; Pinterest
There is only the now, so let's be here now. Stand (or sit) in the place where you are.

If the path of calm and insight begins with meditation, which we are defining in a focused way as "meditative absorption" (jhana). Let us to turn to a very important point by the Theravadin website. To get to meditation, one abandons or overcomes the Five Hindrances to meditation. In doing so, one is cultivating the Five Factors of Absorptions, the limbs of jhana.

"The first meditation (meditative absorption) is free of free things (the Five Hindrances), and five things are present (the Five Factors of Absorption). Whenever a meditator enters the first meditation, these five have vanished:
  1. sensuous desire
  2. ill-will
  3. tiredness/boredom
  4. restlessness/worry
  5. doubt.
And there are present these five factors:
  1. initial-attention (vitakka)
  2. sustained-attention (vicāra)
  3. bliss
  4. happiness
  5. concentration.
In the second more refined meditative absorption, the second door, there are present: bliss, happiness, and concentration. In the third, there are joy and concentration. In the fourth, equanimity and concentration" (Path of Purification, ancient Buddhist meditation manual, Vis.M. IV).

The question becomes, What are vitakka and vicara? They have long been misunderstood -- with the consequence that very few people pursue Buddhist meditation according to its ancient definition and even fewer gain the first absorption -- these two terms to mean "thought conception" and "discursive thinking," respectively.

Vitakka and Vicara – What do they mean?
Theravadin: Theravada Practice Blog edited and expanded by Wisdom Quarterly
Meditative absorption, known as jhana, just ahead! (Wisdom Quarterly)
Siddhartha began with attention to the breath.
Another title for this question is, How do I find my way to the first meditation, the first jhana?
Let’s say our meditation topic is remembering-the-breath (ana-pana-sati), the meditation Siddhartha was doing when he gained enlightenment (though, technically, he moved on to insight practice after establishing a firm and purified foundation of concentration with the breath.

Not think about sex? See below.
So we collect the mind at the breath, give it attention at the tip of the nose, concentrate on breathing. If that is all we do, very soon, we will find ourselves lost in millions of thoughts. Hopelessly washed away by thinking, planning, worrying, fantasizing, and so on.
Then we make the following change to our practice because someone said it would help:
With each breathing-in we mentally note “in,” and with each breathing out we note “out.” That literally is vitakka, or “thought.” [This seems to be what the Edward Conze in the uber-famous Heart Sutra translates as “thought coverings.”] It's simple, as the Buddha taught. This thought will therefore help us remember (sati, or mindfulness, literally means “memory,” maintaining in our mental presence, being mindful) our in-and-out breathing (anapana).

Now, what is “vicara”? It is gliding (literally “moving about”). We do not just think one thought and watch the breath. No, we find that we must repeat that “thought” and “glide,” “abide,” “slide,” “skid,” “dwell,” “ride.” (All of these words denote a prolonged abiding, like the slug line in “The Big Lebowski,” which reflects the literal meaning of vicara) on our meditation object, in this example breathing.
I struggle and flap until I soar and abide.
Repeatedly we tie our mind to the post of our meditation object. If it wriggles out, we tie it again. We can do it with the help of this “thought,” vitakka.

It is like an eagle that wants to soar. It is looking for a stream of rising air that will carry and lift it up. The bird will repeatedly flap its wings and glide for a while, repeating the flapping, gliding, flapping, gliding...until it finds the stream of uplifting air and comes to a peaceful riding -- an abiding -- an effortless soaring, simply enjoying the ride.

Mother figure (HeyItsWilliam)
We all know attention is good. But there are two kinds, the struggle and the effortless. If we deem something "boring," it's a struggle to keep the mind on it for two consecutive moments. But if it's intrinsically fascinating, alluring, beautiful, attention goes to it as if no effort were involved.
When we first turn the mind in this direction, it resists, and we are gangly like an uncoordinated bird. But with repeated effort to stick with it and get over this hump, begin to glide and soar. Attention becomes sustained. Imagine a bird wishing to take flight, the Buddha explained. First it leaps from the branch and flaps its wings, maybe losing some feathers, working up a sweat, squawking, but soon it relaxes, calms down, soars on the wind. As with the example of the eagle, it locates a thermal and is lifted by it.

Choppy poured water (TW)
Another example given is that of water versus oil poured from a jar. Do it. Pour it. Notice how the water pours all choppy until it becomes a stream? That is like initial-attention.

What about the oil? How does it pour? It is an unbroken stream, not choppy, not intermittent. It is constant. It is, in a word, sustained. When we sit, we first make an initial application of attention, which is choppy and broken.

Smooth unbroken oil (TDC)
In due time, we make a sustained application of attention. The first is a struggle, but the second seems effortless. Actually, the effort it depends on is the initial-attention.

Yathā pakkhī pubbaṃ āyūhati pacchā nāyūhati yathā āyūhanā evaṃ vitakko, yathā pakkhānaṃ pasāraṇaṃ evaṃ vicāro.

It is like a bird that first has to exert itself and later has to not exert itself -- in the same way is the initial-exertion (vitakka) like flapping, and the sustained spreading of wings is vicara (Petakopadesa, Khuddaka Nikaya, Wisdom Quarterly translation based on Pali Text Society edition translation, p. 142).

Maybe a simpler example can be given with a piano. Go up to a piano and hit a key. Plink. Now sit down, press the pedal, and hit it. Pliiiiiiiiiiink. That pedal is called the sustain, the stretching out of the note. The bird flaps to fly then it holds its wings perfectly still to glide. The point of flapping is to get to the effortless gliding and hanging in midair.

To tame a wild elephant (
Let’s take the Buddha's simile of the post. If one were to wish to tame an elephant, one would do it as it has been done for thousands of years. Make a clearing in the forest, drive a post into the ground, and tie a chain to it. Now go get a wild elephant from the forest wilderness.

[This is just a simile; no elephants were harmed in this thought experiment.] Bring it to the clearing, tie it to the post, then go hide in the bush to make sure it remains safe. The mind is like a wild elephant. The post is the meditation object. The chain is mindfulness. Do you know what that elephant is going to do?

It is going to go wild. It will not be tamed! It is used to wandering wherever it feels like whenever it feels like it. I'm not going to sit here on this stupid mat staring at my nose when I could be outside chasing dates, partying, taking drugs, playing loud music with a lot of bass and a good beat... F.U.! That's what the mind says.

Be here now? The mind wanders like a wild elephant, drawn to the past by memories of sensual pleasures and to the future by hopes of more (Matt Groening/"Life in Hell").
The elephant will trumpet, pull, tug, charge, attempt to walk away, flail about, cry, get angry, get depressed, get frustrated. It will not be restrained. It will not restrain itself. Yet eventually, if kept there, it will calm down. Then the taming can begin. It can be trained to focus its power and do many useful things.

Mind will learn to relax then stay put (MP).
It's cruel to tame elephants to serve humans. But this is just a simile. The "elephant" is the mind. Our minds are wild and will remain wild until they kill themselves, drive themselves into the ground, get lost or devoured in the wilderness.

We have a right to tame our own minds, to get them to serve us, to focus their power in the service of something so useful as enlightenment. But it's our choice. Most will remain wild and never even try to calm down. Never mind them. Let us mind our own minds.

But how? Use the simile the Buddha gave on how to tame a wild elephant. After a time, sometimes a long time, the elephant realizes that it is futile to struggle and pull on the post and chain. So it stops. It relaxes. It calms. It becomes serene and pliable, wieldy, tractable, able to worked with, applied, used as a tool rather than it using us.

Theravadin goes astray here, as does most of the scholarly Theravada tradition, to think that thinking is the point:

"You hammer on the top of the pole (which is your meditation object). The repeated hammering is your repetition of a thought, to help focus the mind. The repetition of this thought is initially necessary as our mind is pulled in six directions by six animals, the senses. The movement of the pole into the ground is vicara. Each time the hammer hits the pole, it moves a little deeper until the pole is so deep that it can stand alone, upright, and unshaken by sense impressions. Voila! The first jhana!"
All that effort, all that pole banging, we do not agree that this is the way. Place the post firmly to begin with, and stay with it by the strong chain of bare attention (one meaning sati or mindfulness as a necessary ingredient of right-concentration).

Bliss (piti) and happiness (sukha) have come as a sign that the mind steadied on the meditation subject. Now, meditation has become a “dwelling place” (vihara) and is no longer fighting or struggling. This, meditator, is the meaning of vitakka and vicara.

The same applies for other serenity meditation (samatha) objects like silently repeating,  “Buddho, buddho, buddho...” (inhale on budh, exhale on oh, which means “awaken”), or “Metta, metta, metta...” (which means “loving-kindness”), or “light, light, light…” just to name a few famous mantra like words, as in the ancient Indian practice of japa or divine repetition.
More on attention
Zooming in on the breath, calming, collecting, concentrating mind in jhana (isa_adsr/flickr).
Ecstatic jhana of St. Teresa, mystic Catholic
When we turn the mind to our object of attention in meditation, we are usually already bored with it because we haven't seen how wonderful and fascinating it has the potential of being.

What could be more boring than the breath? I breathe all day long, and I do it again all night! Boooring! But we are not looking at breathing, or the gross breath, not the air, not the movement of the apparatus that makes breathing possible, not even the invisible respiration process going on. No, there is something more fascinating there when we calm down.

We can call it the subtle breath, the prana, the Latin spiritus or what the Gnostic and Catholic contemplative traditions long ago used to call the "holy spirit." (That word has been ruined now as a bunch of other stuff having nothing to do with meditation).

It's like a subtle wriggling under the nose. It exactly mimics whatever the mind is doing. By paying attention to it, one knows whether the breath is long or short (corresponding to shifting mental states). All those details given at the beginning of the Discourse on the Setting Up of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta) finally make sense.
Jhana suffuses the body like water does soap.
Just watch and we'd see them. We would know what the breath, that subtle breath when the mind is calm and focused, is doing as it does it. It's like a mirror to our minds, and any move it makes we can see. We can know ourselves. "Know thyself," everyone says, but they don't know the first thing about knowing thyself because they don't even know their own minds and how swiftly it changes, turns, goes, comes, gets excited, calms down. Increased attention calms the mind, but to us increasing attention means increasing effort, and that's not the way. Right?
When we want to focus right at this instant, what do we instinctively do? We hold our breath, and for a moment that focuses our mind. A beautiful object arrests our breath. Sometimes in meditation, breathing becomes like osmosis, that subtle, no perceptible movement of the lungs, just that wriggle. One can almost see it. And, indeed, if one keeps up this meditation, the mind will produce a counterpart sign, an inner light, what is technically called a nimitta.
This is one way to understand the related terms vitakka and vicara. The great living Buddhist meditation master, Pa Auk Sayadaw, an enlightened teacher who a scholar-practitioner, has directly explained these terms to us.

They are very much misunderstood by scholars who do not practice and have no attainments to speak of. (Two American practitioners present the Sayadaw's instructions after their own success in Practicing the Jhanas by Stephen Snyder and Tina Rasmussen).

The words vitakka and vicara mean discursive thinking. What they refer to, as is perfectly clear by the examples the Buddha gave to define them, is initial-attention and sustained-attention, sometimes initial application of mind and sustained application. We turn (advert) the mind to the meditation-object, for example the breath under the nose. 

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