How to read the posts

The posts are arranged here with the most recent appearing at the top of the page. If you are new to the blog, you might find it useful to start with the first posts. Go to the blog archive on the lower right to access the posts in the order in which they were written.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Opening to insight: Kamma and rebirth

Next to the concept of non-self, perhaps the most misunderstood concept in Buddhism is the concept of kamma (karma in Sanskrit) and rebirth.  Rebirth occurs with every moment.  Actually, there is no self to be reborn.  What carries over from one moment to the next is the consequences of previous actions.  Fundamentally, kamma has to do with mental actions, volitions or intentions, and their results.  The law of kamma is that volitional actions have consequences.  Good actions have good consequences and bad actions have bad consequences.  These consequences, like the actions from which they ensue, have to do with the mind:  “The mind performing a deed is kamma and the subsequent mind is the result of that kamma” (Buddhadasa, 1988).  The impact of good or bad deeds is first of all on the mind performing them.

Kamma is cumulative and formative, but it is not destiny. The results of past kamma do not wholly determine present kamma.  Kamma is formed in the present, and this is the source of our capacity to make good or bad choices.  If we are trying to live a moral life, we cultivate virtues and try to do good rather than evil, but this does not guarantee us happiness.  It is not only past kamma that determines whether our circumstances in life are favorable or unfavorable; there are many other forces at work (kamma is only one of five natural laws).  Hence, bad things can happen to good people.

Buddhism offers a way out of kamma, the cessation of kamma through nibhana.  The arahant, the enlightened saint, who is free of all defilements, can still be affected by past kamma but no longer generates fresh kamma.   The arahant acts with volition but these actions "leave no trace on the mental continuum just like the flight of a bird across the sky" (Bodhi, 2011).  Prior to achieving enlightenment, the would-be arahant acted virtuously, perfecting kamma to such an extent that it could be overcome.  Perfecting kamma to end kamma entails breaking the samsaric cycle of birth and death in each moment by freeing oneself from ignorance (avidya) and craving (tanha).

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Opening to insight: The three marks of existence

A somewhat tongue-in-cheek summary of the three marks of existence is as follows:

Everything changes (anicca).

That is not satisfying (dukkha).
It's nothing personal (anatta).

Anicca is usually translated as impermanence and refers to the fact that everything is constantly changing.  Everything that comes to be passes away.

Dukkha is a linked characteristic in that this impermanence is experienced as unsatisfactory or as suffering.  There is clearly much about life that is unsatisfactory.  Humans experience old age, sickness and death, for instance.  However, it is not that that there is nothing in this world that brings us happiness, but this happiness we experience has no permanence; it does not last.  Inherent in this happiness is the inevitability of it ending, and it is this which makes it unsatisfactory.  However, it is debatable whether impermanence is inherently unsatisfactory or just that we experience it as such as a result of craving and clinging.

Anatta refers to the impersonal, the non-self aspect of existence.  There is no enduring essence of anything in this world including the self.  We can see ourselves as being the same over time, but this is actually just an appearance of continuity not evidence of an enduring essence that is actually the same.  There is no "I" beyond this continuity, no soul or ego.  This non-self characteristic extends not just to the self but to all things.

Insight wisdom (vipassana panna) consists "just of this experience of the three characteristics applied to one's own bodily and mental processes, and deepened and matured in meditation" (Nyanaponika, 2013).

It is this insight wisdom and what leads up to it that I would like to explore in future posts.

Opening to insight: The threefold training

In Theravada Buddhism, the process of liberation involves a threefold training:  sila or morality, samadhi or concentration and panna or wisdom.  Pursuit of this training leads to the abandonment or uprooting of the three unwholesome roots and, when this is accomplished, to nibbana or enlightenment.

This threefold training is a summary form of the Noble Eightfold Path.  In the Noble Eightfold Path, the morality training is represented by right speech, right action and right livelihood.  The concentration training is represented by right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.  The wisdom training is represented by right intention and right view.  The practice associated with morality is observance of the appropriate precepts for one's station in life (layperson or monastic) and the cultivation of virtues.  The practice associated with concentration is meditation, and the practice associated with wisdom is insight.

From this it is clear that sila is the primary training and the foundation for training in meditation and insight.

Opening to insight: The three unwholesome roots

Three unwholesome roots-- bird for greed, snake for anger and pig for delusion

In Theravada Buddhism, the three unwholesome roots are lobha or greed (attachment), dosa or anger (aversion) and moha or delusion (ignorance).  They are the roots of mental suffering and keep us chained to samsara, the cycle of birth and death.  Liberation from suffering involves a process of purification, an uprooting of these kilesas or defilements.

In Mahayana Buddhism, this unwholesome triad is referred to as the three poisons.  The picture below is very much in keeping with the concept.
The three poisons by Giruveganus

Opening to insight: The Four Noble Truths

According to tradition, the Buddha, as a young man living a life of privilege and ease, encountered dukkha, which can be translated as suffering or, perhaps more accurately, as dissatisfaction.  He sought to understand its nature and causes and the way it could be overcome.  Leaving his home and family, for six years he tried various contemplative and ascetic practices until he devised his own method and attained enlightenment.  At first he considered whether or not to teach what he had learned, but he decided to share his insight and met with a group of men with whom he had previously practiced.  He taught them the Four Noble Truths.  They became his first disciples.

Briefly put, the Four Noble Truths are as follows:
1)  Dukkha or suffering is a fundamental aspect of our experience.
2)  The cause of suffering is tanha or craving.
3)  The end of suffering is the cessation of craving, which is achieved in enlightenment or nibbana.
4)  The path to liberation from suffering is the Eightfold Noble Path (right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration, right intention and right view).  

Although craving is identified as the cause of suffering, it is not the first cause or the only cause of suffering; it is simply the immediate and most palpable cause of suffering (Walpola Rahula, 1978).  It is a linked in a chain of dependent origination preceded by feeling, contact, and so on, and ultimately back to ignorance.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Opening to insight: Mindfulness

The movement towards mindfulness meditation as a therapy has been most deeply influenced by Jon Kabat-Zinn who originated the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.  His definition of mindfulness, which has been largely adopted by the therapeutic community, is as follows:  “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (1994, p. 4).

In a previous post (What is mindfulness?, March 12, 2012), I discussed this definition in some detail.  I will review some points I made earlier, accentuate some of the differences between the traditional Buddhist definition of mindfulness and Kabat-Zinn’s definition and suggest there is value to incorporating into therapy a definition more consistent with the Buddhist definition.

Mindfulness is an English translation of sati, a word in the Pali language in which the Buddhist scriptures were written.  The word’s original meaning had to do with memory or recollection, which is puzzling, because mindfulness is usually associated with being present-focused.  The meaning of sati has to do with the Buddhist concept of consciousness as being a discontinuous process of extremely brief moments that arise and pass away.  When we are mindful, it is not of something co-occurring but of something that has already past; the happening of which we are mindful may be experienced as present but only because of the close proximity in time of our mindfulness of it.  Mindfulness as sati has to do with keeping an object in mind, of not letting the object just slip away, of not forgetting it.  In fact, because mindfulness “holds” the immediately preceding object in attention, it facilitates later recollection of it (Veliz, 2011; Dreyfus, 2010).
Another dimension to mindfulness as sati is its evaluative aspect.  Mindfulness is not neutral as the Kabat-Zinn definition implies.  Accompanying sati is sampajañña or clear comprehension, another important Buddhist concept; it is clear comprehension that recognizes the quality of any given instance of consciousness as either wholesome or unwholesome, destructive or beneficial.  Right mindfulness, one of the eight components of the Buddhist path, integrates sati with sampajañña.

Various commentators (Wallace & Bodhi, 2006) trace the origin of the idea of non-judgmental mindfulness back to a description of mindfulness by a German-born, Sri Lankan monk, Nyanaponika Thera.  Nyanaponika Thera described mindfulness in terms of “bare attention,” a non-conceptual and non-evaluative form of attention in which we observe what is occurring without interference or judgment; it is a “a bare registering of the facts observed, without reacting to them by deed, speech or by mental comment which may be one of self-reference (like, dislike, etc.), judgment or reflection” (Nyanaponika, 1996, p. 30).  However, when later confronted with how his definition had been interpreted in the West, Nyanapokia Thera expressed consternation and clarified that bare attention is only an initial phase in mindfulness (Wallace & Bodhi, 2006).  The practice of bare attention is useful in breaking free from the attitudes that we tend to adopt to what appears before our mind – evaluation in terms of right and wrong, good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant.  Its value is that it lessens the reactivity (i.e., clinging and aversion) that goes with those attitudes.  However, bare attention is not all there is to mindfulness and should be accompanied by clear comprehension.

The cognitive and evaluative dimensions of mindfulness have been largely ignored in the Western therapeutic application of the concept of mindfulness (Dreyfus, 2010; Veliz, 2011).  Given the emphasis on mindfulness being present focused and non-judgmental, bringing in these dimensions may seem to muddle what otherwise seems to be a fairly straight-forward therapeutic approach to dealing with mental suffering.  On the other hand, the added sophistication of the Buddhist concepts may substantially improve the way we understand mental suffering and approach it therapeutically.  A few points about this may be suggestive.

It may be useful to work with the evaluative dimension in therapy, for instance, and explore how conventional attitudes dictate our reactions to our experiences.  We will likely find that, at the most basic level, our simple likes and dislikes, our largely non-reflective preferences, our habitual patterns govern our reactions.  What then are we to do?  This may be an interesting exercise, but we need a new framework for understanding how we are to break free of our reactivity.  We need a framework that helps us to understand what is truly good for us and what is not, so that we can respond skilfully rather than simply react.  Value-neutrality is of little help in this regard; we need a framework of values.  Identifying a set of values and working with them therefore becomes a new therapeutic focus.  Those values may be Buddhist values, they may come from some other religious or secular traditions or they may be discovered through inquiry and reflection.  Wherever they come from, they are critical for determining direction and giving purpose in life.  

To understand the larger context of mindfulness, in posts that follow the theme of "opening to insight," I will cover what I consider to be the most basic relevant to meditation.

Dreyfus, G. (2010). Is Mindfulness Present-Centered and Nonjudgmental? A Discussion of the Cognitive Implications of Mindfulness. (Unpublished).

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994).  Wherever you go, there you are:  Mindfulness meditations in everyday life. New York:  Hyperion

Nyanaponika Thera.  (1996).  The Heart of Buddhist Meditation.  York Beach, Maine:  Samuel Weiser, p. 30.

Veliz, Carissa.  (2011).  Equivocalities of the Definition and Practice of Mindfulness:  Comparing the Modern and Traditional Notions of the Term.  (Unpublished).

Wallace, A. & Bodhi, Bhikkhu. (2006)  The Nature of Mindfulness and its Role in Buddhist Meditation. A Correspondance between B. Alan Wallace & Bhikkhu Bodhii. (Unpublished).

Opening to insight: Introduction

Mindfulness meditation is increasingly used as a therapy; it has become mainstream.  The origin of mindfulness therapy is in Buddhist practices, yet there is a growing awareness that mindfulness as it is conceived within psychological therapy diverges from mindfulness as it is conceived traditionally in Buddhism.  This is perhaps for good reason, as most of the people who seek out mindfulness as therapy are not about to become Buddhists.  However, I wonder if something more is being lost than just the religious context.

I would like to begin a discussion of this issue.  I am going to call it "opening to insight."  The idea is to look at some of the ways in which mindfulness is conceived in Buddhism and some of the related concepts that are central to Buddhism with the purpose of enlivening and enriching the practice of those who might have originally approached mindfulness meditation as a therapeutic modality, as a way of relaxing, quieting the mind or dealing with mental suffering.

In order to pursue this discussion, I need to provide some very basic information about Buddhist doctrine.  The idea is not to indoctrinate but to educate those who may not be familiar with these doctrines in order to provide a context for understanding the points I wish to make.  Since I am most familiar with Theravada Buddhism, I will focus on it.

revised--  March 15, 2013

Monday, March 4, 2013

Retreats in Myanmar (Burma)

I just returned from a month (February) in Myanmar.  In addition to travelling around for sight-seeing (Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan), I "sampled" two retreat centers, the Mahasi Center in Yangon and the Shwe Oo Min Center outside of Yangon.  I only stayed a week at each, which is the minimum period allowed.

Both meditation centers provide lodging and food without cost.  They rely entirely on donations.  Both are training centers for monks and nuns.  It is possible to ordain as a monastic while there (temporary ordination is common in Myanmar), but I presume that one would have to stay for at least a month to do so.  At the Mahasi Center foreigners (monastics and lay persons) stay in separate quarters, but they are mixed at the Shwe Oo Min Center.  At the Mahasi Center everyone eats in the same dining hall, although in different sections.  There is greater integration in the lodgings at the Shwe Oo Min Center, but monks are segregated for meals there.

Both centers have similar schedules for doing alternating sitting and walking meditation, although the Mahasi Center tags on a later session in the evening.  Wake-up is at 3:30 AM at both.  Neither center enforced the schedules (except for meals), and it was possible to follow one's own schedule for sitting and walking.  Rituals were at a minimum at both.  The expectation at the Mahasi Center is that one observe "noble silence," although there were occasions when one could engage in conversation with a willing participant.  At the Shwe Oo Min Center "noble silence" was observed in the meditation hall and during meals, but there were few restraints on conversation outside of that.  "Talking meditation" and what I would call "noble chatter" were practiced freely.    

At the Mahasi Center you are given a single room, but at the Shwe Oo Min Center you share a room with another yogi.  As it happened, the yogi with whom I shared a room there was a great guy who had meditated at that center over a long period, and we had many good conversations.

Although the Mahasi Center is in Yangon and the Shwe Oo Min Center is a "forest retreat" center in a semi-rural area, the Mahasi Center was much quieter.  The level of noise in Myanmar was quite a surprise to me.  The Burmese seem to tolerate loud speakers blaring out music, commercial messages, chanting, calls to prayer and religious talks during much of the day and even during the night.  The Shwe Oo Min Center is surrounded by monasteries and nunneries, and they seem to see it as their mission to let everyone in the vicinity know what they are up to.  I stayed at a monastery close to the Shwe Oo Min Center the first few nights I was in Myanmar so I was somewhat prepared, but, I must confess, I never really got used to so much racket.  The Burmese seem to just laugh it off.  One is almost forced to do "sound meditation" to observe one's reactions to all the noise.

The other factor that I found difficult to deal with was the heat.  I was prepared for it to be hot, but  I thought that February was not going to be as hot as it turned out to be.  The meditation hall at the Mahasi Center was air-conditioned for part of the day, and there were fans in the sleeping quarters, but there were just ceiling fans in the meditation hall at the Shwe Oo Min Center and no fans in the sleeping quarters.  When temperatures approached 40 C in the midday, I wimped out and tried to find a cool spot.  The only real relief was taking cold showers during the day.

Another disappointment for me was the level of interaction there was with the teacher, especially at the Mahasi Center.  I had an initial meeting with Sayadaw U Jatila, who is a very senior Monk at the Mahsia Center in charge of training foreigners.  He insisted I listen to a garbled tape of Mahasi instructions even though I said I had heard it many times previously.  While I was there, I had two interviews in groups.  He spoke basic English.  He gave good advice, but it was not particularly tailored to the individual.  His one dhamma talk was taped and was a repetition of a chapter from his book.  It was an exposition of a sutta.  We all had to sit through while the passages were read in other languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese).

There was only one scheduled group interview with Sayadaw U Tejaniya at the Shwe Oo Min Center.  However, he was quite accessible otherwise, and I was able to ask questions of him at other times.  His English is relatively good, and he seemed to grasp one's level of practice.  I witnessed his interactions with others, and he was very tolerant and kind.

The practice taught at the Mahasi Center is, as one would expect, entirely orthodox Mahasi practice.  The practice of Sayadaw Tejaniya is much more free-wheeling.  There is considerable emphasis in the Mahasi technique on concentration, whereas in his teaching, awareness is more emphasized.  Effort is energetic in the Mahasi techique, whereas in his teaching, persistence is emphasized.  In the Mahasi technique, one moves over time from a body-centered focus to a more open focus, whereas in his teaching, one begins with an open focus.  In future posts, I will provide a more detailed analysis of the two techniques.

Overall, both centers offer a good setting for practice, but you have to be self-disciplined when there is not a lot of externally imposed structure.  If I returned, I would go earlier, probably in November when it is cooler.  Having seen a lot of sights, I would not need to travel around quite as much, and I could stay for a longer period of time in a retreat center to get the maximum benefit out of my stay.  I would probably continue my sampling in the hope of finding a setting most conducive to my practice.