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1: Discovering the Heart of Meditation
It is said
that soon after his enlightenment, the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the extraordinary radiance and peacefulness of his presence. The man stopped and asked, "My friend, what are you? Are you a celestial being or a god?"
said the Buddha.
then, are you some kind of magician or wizard?"
Again the Buddha answered, "No."
"Are you a man?"
my friend, what then are you?"
Buddha replied, "I am awake."
The name Buddha means "one who is awake," and it is this experience that is the very heart and essence of vipassana, or insight meditation. It offers a way of practice that can open us to see clearly our bodies, our hearts, our minds, and the world around us and develop a wise and compassionate way to relate to and understand them all. This practice of insight meditation comes from the original core of the Buddha's teachings as transmitted for 2,500
years in the Theravada tradition of southern Asia. But it is not an "Asian"
practice. It is a practice by which anyone can awaken to the truth of life and become free.
The path of awakening begins with a step the Buddha called right understanding.
Right understanding has two parts. To start with, it asks a question of our hearts. What do we really value, what do we really care about in this life? Our lives are quite short. Our childhood goes by very, quickly, then adolescence and adult life go by. We can be complacent and let our lives disappear in a dream, or we can become aware. In the beginning of practice we must ask what is most important to us. When we're ready to die, what will we want to have done?
What will we care about most? At the time of death, people who have tried to live consciously ask only one or two questions about their life: Did I learn to live wisely? Did I love well? We can begin by asking them now.
This is the beginning of right understanding: looking at our lives, seeing that they are impermanent and fleeting, and taking into account what matters to us most deeply. In the same way, we can look at the world around us, where there is a tremendous amount of suffering, war, poverty, and disease. Hundreds of millions of people are having a terrible, terrible time in Africa and Central America and India and Southeast Asia and even right here in North America. What does the world need to foster a safe and compassionate existence for all? Human suffering and hardship cannot be alleviated just by a simple change of government or a new monetary policy, although these things may help. On the deepest level, problems such as war and starvation are not solved by economics and politics alone. Their source is prejudice and fear in the human heart—and their solution also lies in the human heart. What the world needs most is people who are less bound by prejudice. It needs more love, more generosity,
more mercy, more openness. The root of human problems is not a lack of resources but comes from the misunderstanding, fear, and separateness that can be found in the hearts of people.
Right understanding starts by acknowledging the suffering and difficulties in the world around us as well as in our own lives. Then it asks us to touch what we really value inside, to find what we really care about, and to use that as the basis of our spiritual practice. When we see that things are not quite right in the world and in ourselves, we also become aware of another possibility, of the potential for us to open to greater loving-kindness and a deep intuitive wisdom. From our heart comes inspiration for the spiritual journey. For some of us this will come as a sense of the great possibility of living in an awake and free way. Others of us are brought to practice as a way to come to terms with the power of suffering in our life. Some are inspired to seek understanding through a practice of discovery and inquiry, while some intuitively sense a connection with the divine or are inspired to practice as a way to open the heart more fully. Whatever brings us to spiritual practice can become a flame in our heart that guides and protects us and brings us to true understanding.
Right understanding also requires from us a recognition and understanding of the law of karma. Karma is not just a mystical idea about something esoteric like past lives in Tibet. The term karma refers to the law of cause and effect. It means that what we do and how we act create our future experiences. If we are angry at many people, we start to live in a climate of hate. People will get angry at us in return. If we cultivate love, it returns to us. It's simply how the law works in our lives.
Someone asked a vipassana teacher, Ruth Dennison, if she could explain karma very simply. She said, "Sure. Karma means you don't get away with nothing!" Whatever we do, however we act, creates how we become, how we will be, and how the world will be around us. To understand karma is wonderful because within this law there are possibilities of changing the direction of our lives. We can actually train ourselves and transform the climate in which we live. We can practice being more loving, more aware, more conscious, or whatever we want. We can practice in retreats or while driving or in the supermarket checkout line. If we practice kindness, then spontaneously we start to experience more and more kindness within us and from the world around us.
There's a story of the Sufi figure Mullah Nasruddin, who is both a fool and a wise man.
He was out one day in his garden sprinkling bread crumbs around the flowerbeds.
A neighbor came by and asked, "Mullah, why are you doing that?"
Nasruddin answered, "Oh, I do it to keep the tigers away."
The neighbor said, "But there aren't any tigers within thousands of miles of here."
Nasruddin replied, "Effective, isn't it?"
Spiritual practice is not a mindless repetition of ritual or prayer. It works through consciously realizing the law of cause and effect and aligning our lives to it.
Perhaps we can sense the potential of awakening in ourselves, but we must also see that it doesn't happen by itself. There are laws that we can follow to actualize this potential. How we act, how we relate to ourselves, to our bodies, to the people around us, to our work, creates the kind of world we live in, creates our very freedom or suffering.
Over the years and throughout various cultures, many techniques and systems of
Buddhist practice have been developed to bring this aspiration to fruition, but the essence of awakening is always the same: to see clearly and directly the truth of our experience in each moment, to be aware, to be mindful. This practice is a systematic development and opening of awareness called by the
Buddha the four foundations of mindfulness: awareness of the body, awareness of feelings, awareness of mental phenomena, and awareness of truths, of the laws of experience.
To succeed in the cultivation of mindfulness, said the Buddha, is the highest benefit, informing all aspects of our life. "Sandalwood and tagara are delicately scented and give a little fragrance, but the fragrance of virtue and a mind well trained rises even to the gods."
How are we to begin?
Path of Purification
an ancient Buddhist text and guide, was written in answer to a short poem:
The world is entangled in a knot.
Who can untangle the tangle.
It is to untangle the tangle that we begin meditation practice. To disentangle ourselves, to be free, requires that we train our attention. We must begin to see how we get caught by fear, by attachment, by aversion—caught by suffering.
This means directing attention to our everyday experience and learning to listen to our bodies, hearts, and minds. We attain wisdom not by creating ideals but by learning to see things clearly, as they are.
What is meditation? It's a good question. There is no shortage of descriptions,
theories, manuals, texts, and ideas about it. There are hundreds of schools of meditation, which include prayer, reflection, devotion, visualization, and myriad ways to calm and focus the mind. Insight meditation (and other disciplines like it) is particularly directed to bringing understanding to the mind and heart. It begins with a training of awareness and a process of inquiry in ourselves. From this point of view, asking, "What is meditation?"
is really the same as asking, "What is the mind?" or "Who am
I?" or "What does it mean to be alive, to be free?"—questions about the fundamental nature of life and death. We must answer these questions in our own experience, through a discovery in ourselves. This is the heart of meditation.
It is a wonderful thing to discover these answers. Otherwise, much of life is spent on automatic pilot. Many people pass through years of life driven by greed, fear, aggression, or endless grasping after security, affection, power,
sex, wealth, pleasure, and fame. This endless cycle of seeking is what Buddhism calls samsara. It is rare that we take time to understand this life that we are given to work with. We're born, we grow older, and eventually we die; we enjoy,
we suffer, we wake, we sleep—how quickly it all slips away. Awareness of the suffering involved in this process of life, of being born, growing old, and dying, led the Buddha to question deeply how it comes about and how we can find freedom. That was the Buddha's question. That is where he began his practice.
Each of us has our own way of posing this question. To understand ourselves and our life is the point of insight meditation: to understand and to be free.
There are several types of understanding. One type comes from reading the words of others. We have all read and stored away an enormous amount of information,
even about spiritual matters. Although this kind of understanding is useful, it is still someone else's experience. Similarly there is the understanding that comes from being told by someone wise or experienced: "It's this way,
friend." That too can be useful. There is a deeper understanding based on our own consideration and reflection: "I've seen this through thoughtful analysis. I understand how it
A tremendous amount can be known through thought. But is there a level deeper than that? What happens when we begin to ask the most fundamental questions about our lives? What is love? What is freedom? These questions cannot be answered by secondhand or intellectual ways of understanding. What the Buddha discovered, and what has been rediscovered by generation after generation of those who have practiced his teachings in their lives, is that there is a way to answer these difficult and wonderful questions. They are answered by an intuitive, silent knowing, by developing our own capacity to see clearly and directly.
How are we to begin? Traditionally, this understanding grows through the development of three aspects of our being: a ground of conscious conduct, a steadiness of the heart and mind, and a clarity of vision or wisdom.