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Shamatha-Vipassana Meditation – Right Meditation
The above recording introduces The Truth Of Happiness Dhamma Study and the first weeks’ study of Shamatha-Vipassana meditation. Information on The Truth Of Happiness book and dhamma study is here.
Buddhism (has) adapted to various cultures within a framework of each culture’s beliefs and held views. I believe the difficulty that many Westerners have had in integrating the Dhamma is in attempting to develop an understanding of the Dhamma from the perspective of an unfamiliar culture.
As Buddhism moved to the West, with a much more pragmatic view of the world, many Westerners attempted to integrate the teachings AND the cultural influences already present. With no perspective in which to understand the cultural influences, great confusion has arisen. This has led to the original teachings to be shrouded in mystery, hidden behind dogma and ritual, and lacking the context in which the original teachings were presented.
The Buddha did not intend his teachings to be useful only for those with the right lineage, the right kamma, the right teacher, the right empowerment, the right social position, or the right culture.
The Buddha taught a simple and direct path of developing lasting peace and happiness. This teaching is accessible and understandable to anyone who takes to the Dhamma whole-heartedly. In this study there will be no analysis of concepts nor an attempt to prove the validity of the Buddha’s teachings within any tradition that developed after the Buddha’s death. I will explain terms as I understand them and as supported in the Pali Canon.
I will, by necessity, and intending Right Speech, show where adaptations and accommodations to the Buddha’s original teachings have occurred and become generally accepted as “Buddhist” teachings. I intend no disrespect to any tradition, school or Buddhist religion. I intend only clarity and a useful Dhamma.
The Buddha taught freedom from the delusion of stress and the underlying unsatisfactoriness of life common to all. He taught that freedom, or awakening, can be achieved in this present lifetime.
I hold great reverence for all of the various Buddhist religions and schools that have developed since the passing of the Buddha. Many people have found meaning and purpose through these individually and culturally influenced adaptations.
I have found through my own direct inquiry that the teachings of the Buddha as preserved in the Pali Canon are most effective in developing the Buddha’s stated purpose.
In the Simsapa Sutta the Buddha describes the purpose of his teachings:
“And what have I taught? ‘I teach the nature of dukkha (stress). I teach the origination of dukkha (craving and clinging originate dukkha). I teach that cessation of dukkha is possible. I teach that The Eightfold Path is the path leading to the cessation of dukkha: This is what I have taught.
“And why have I taught these things? Because they are connected with the goal. They relate to the rudiments of the mindful life. These teachings develop disenchantment and dispassion. These teachings develop cessation of stress and unhappiness. They bring calm, and direct knowledge. These teachings develop self-awakening and unbinding. This is why I have taught them.
“Therefore your practice is contemplating and understanding: ‘This is stress… This is the origination of stress… This is the cessation of stress.’ Your practice is contemplating and understanding: ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.”
The original teachings of the Buddha are the most practical teachings for developing lasting peace and happiness still present in the world today. These teachings are presented to end all suffering in this lifetime. The purpose of this book and this course is to present the original teachings of the Buddha in a direct and useful manner.
This ten-week course will present Shamatha-Vipassana meditation within the context of an ancient and profound teaching known as The Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are the Buddha’s teachings on the underlying unsatisfactory nature of human life and the cause of unsatisfactory experiences. By developing understanding of the unsatisfactory nature of life and the cause of all stress and unhappiness, a life of lasting peace and happiness can be developed.
It should be noted here that the Buddha did not intend to develop a religion or worship. He did not create a doctrine to be followed blindly. Put aside any ideas you may have of the Buddha as a religious, supernatural, or mystical being. The Buddha was simply a human being who, through his own effort and investigation, “awakened” to these truths. (Buddha means awakened)
The Buddha taught a simple and straightforward method of understanding the truth of lasting peace and happiness. The path leading to lasting peace and happiness is The Eightfold Path. Shamatha-Vipassana meditation is one factor of The Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path can be developed by anyone regardless of current religious practice. Some established religions have much fear arising from misunderstanding meditation and the investigation of the nature of stress and unhappiness. The Eightfold Path can be developed by anyone seeking a more meaningful life, or simply a practical way of understanding themselves on a deep and profound level.
As a practice, what is learned in this course is to be practiced. There is nothing in The Four Noble Truths or The Eightfold Path that has any magical qualities of bringing instant understanding. The meditation method used in this course is most effective when developed within the framework of The Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path provides the perspective, structure and direction necessary for lasting peace and happiness to be experienced.
A basic concept of this course and Shamatha-Vipassana meditation is mindfulness. Mindfulness means to recollect and to hold in mind. By developing an understanding of the causes of stress and unhappiness we can then be mindful, or to recollect and hold in mind, the practice leading to lasting happiness. The Four Foundations of Mindfulness are presented in the second week of this course to develop mindfulness within your meditation practice.
Despite modern references to “mindfulness meditation,” shamatha-vipassana meditation is practiced primarily to develop concentration. Mindfulness then is a refined quality of mind that is developed from concentration and direct application of these teachings.
The problem of stress and unhappiness is that stress creates a constant distraction in our minds. Distraction is a lack of concentration and mindfulness. As human beings we become preoccupied with grasping after that which brings pleasure and we become preoccupied with avoiding that which is unpleasant or disappointing. With some, preoccupation rises to the level of psychosis and compulsion or addiction.
By developing a tranquil mind allowing for insight to arise, our minds become more focused and less distracted. A deep and abiding mindfulness of life as life occurs is developed. We are no longer distracted by grasping and avoidance. With Dhamma practice, lasting peace and happiness is realized.
We will begin in week one with learning the basic practice of Shamatha-Vipassana meditation. The following weeks will develop an understanding of meditation within the context and supportive framework of The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path.
This ten-week course will develop an understanding of the impermanent and uncertain environment that contributes to stress and unhappiness and use this understanding to deepen mindfulness and develop abiding peace and happiness. The direct teachings of the Buddha will be developed and integrated through study and the practical application of concentration and refined mindfulness.
Week ten will be focused on recognizing common hindrances to establishing and maintaining a Dhamma practice within the framework of The Eightfold Path and establishing a life-long practice of mindfulness of the Buddha’s Dhamma.
These lessons are simple and straightforward. The understanding developed is up to you to integrate into your life. A certain amount of time is necessary each day to establish a meditation and mindfulness practice, though not an impossible amount. You may even find that once your mind begins to quiet and you make choices that are more mindful, you have more time for what is most important to you.
The distraction of stress and unhappiness will be left behind and a deep and abiding mindfulness of peace and happiness will prevail.
“Whatever is to be done by a teacher with compassion for the welfare of students, that has been done by me out of compassion for you. Here are the roots of trees. Here are empty places. Go and meditate. Don’t be lazy. Don’t become one who is later remorseful. This is my instruction to you.”
The purpose of this course is to understand stress and disappointment (dukkha) and its cause. Once the cause of unhappiness is understood it can be mindfully abandoned. Shamatha-Vipassana meditation is the technique that you will use to develop concentration and insight. Concentration and insight brings recognition of how you create stress and unhappiness. Finally, concentration develops the useful mindfulness to abandon all causes of stress and unhappiness.
The meditation technique that you will learn and practice in this course is the same meditation technique used by Siddartha Gautama, a human being, who would become the Buddha. Shamatha is a Pali word which means calm abiding, tranquility, serenity or quiet. Vipassana is a Pali word which means insight or to gain insight.
Once your mind is settled and tranquil, free of the distraction of its own compulsive thoughts, insight into unhappiness and stress, its cause and its cessation arises. Using this method of meditation along with the other seven factors of The Eightfold Path, Siddartha Gautama achieved the cessation of stress and “awakened” to a fully mindful state free of craving, clinging and continual self-identification.. He became the Buddha.
The Buddha taught an Eightfold Path. Engaging in one aspect of the path, meditation, will not develop the skillful understanding necessary to awakening.
As you develop the complete framework of the Eightfold Path you are better able to benefit from Right Meditation. Remaining mindful of your moral and ethical behavior, and a practical application of your initial understanding of the Buddha’s path, your meditation practice becomes more enjoyable and more effective. You are now more likely to continue a regular Dhamma practice.
As you sit in meditation, focusing on the sensation of breathing, dispassionately putting aside thoughts as they arise, you naturally reach a state of tranquility. Conditioned thoughts and concepts will cease to cause a reaction in your thinking. You will gain true insight into conditioned mind and the impermanence of all thoughts.
True insight simply means recognizing impermanent thoughts and concepts as conditioned thinking. With dispassionate mindfulness you gently put thoughts aside, and gently return your mindfulness to your breath.
This simple but profound practice is now interrupting your clinging conditioned mind. Practicing shamatha-vipassana meditation within the framework of the Eightfold Path you are developing the ability to direct your thoughts rather than having your thinking direct your life.
Mindfulness is the ability to dispassionately hold in mind and remain distraction-free and aware of what is occurring.
Off your cushion your mindfulness becomes refined and you are less reactive to your conditioned thinking. You begin to integrate a deeper understanding of impermanence and your ego-self and you are more mindfully present in life as life occurs. Mindfulness can now support your meditation practice.
This simple and direct practice, free of the embellishments often placed on the Buddha’s teaching, will gently lead to quieting your mind and developing a stress-free life of lasting peace and happiness. Shamatha-Vipassana is the foundation of a self-awareness practice that develops true liberation and freedom from dukkha…
There is nothing magical or mystical about a meditation posture. The typical meditation posture of being seated on the floor with legs folded against the torso is simply a way to sit comfortably during meditation. The meditation posture should be stable and relaxing and support a quiet and alert mind. It should provide a reasonable amount of comfort, avoiding physical distraction, for the meditation period. At first, any posture may prove to be uncomfortable, and the posture described below will become more comfortable with consistent practice.
Any pillows or cushions that are comfortable can be used. It is preferable to sit on the floor supported by a zafu (pillow made for meditation) placed over a zabuton (a larger, flatter mat to support the legs). The zafu should be from 6 to 8 inches thick and can be filled with cotton, buckwheat or kapok.
When sitting on the zafu (or pillow) place your sit bones on the front third of the zafu and allow your hips to naturally extend out in front of you. With your legs straight in front of you, bend your right leg at the knee and place your right foot under your left thigh and near your left buttock. Bend your left leg at the knee and place your left foot approximately in the crease formed by your right thigh and calf, resting on your calf. For additional support you can place yoga blocks or a rolled towel under your knees if needed.
This may be uncomfortable at first, but with time and patience this will prove to be a very stable base with which to build a meditation practice on. This is called the half-lotus or Burmese posture.
If you are particularly nimble, you may want to sit in the full-lotus position which is the same as the half-lotus with the exception of placing the right foot on top of the left thigh and the left foot on the right thigh. Again, there is nothing advantageous about the full-lotus over the half-lotus unless it affords you more stability and comfort.
From this stable base, keep your back straight but not stiff, not leaning forward or back. Align your ears with your shoulders and your nose with your navel. Place your left hand on top of your right palm with your thumb tips lightly touching, forming an approximate egg-shape with the thumbs and forefingers.. Again, there is nothing magical or mystical about this hand placement, it simply leads to relaxation and lessens physical distraction. If you are more comfortable with your hands palm down on your knees, or some other position, whatever provides the most comfortable and stable position is the meditation posture for you.
Consistency with your posture will allow your body and mind to recognize that meditation is taking place and your body and mind will begin to quiet as soon as the mediation posture is taken. A quiet body supports quieting your mind…
Shamatha-Vipassana Meditation Technique
To begin your meditation, take a few slow, deep breaths, exhaling fully. Gently close your eyes and gently close your mouth, leaving a soft smile. Allow your body and mind to settle into your seat. Breathing through your nose, notice your breath entering your body at the tip of your nose. Being mindful of the sensation of breathing in your body you may notice that the air is slightly cooler on the inhale and slightly warmer on the exhale. If you don’t notice this temperature difference simply notice the flow of your breath at the tip of the nose.
Be mindful of your inhalation and your exhalation. Do not attempt to regulate your breathing in any way. However your body wants to breathe, keep your mindfulness as best you can on the pure sensation of breathing.
Remember, you are not seeking a trance-like state or an avoidance of thinking. You are not attempting to develop a mind-state of “nothingness.” While it is possible to set an intention to use meditation to manipulate a mind-state of nothingness. Nothingness is a mind-state similar to unconsciousness. This mind-state may even seem pleasant as it is an escape from what is occurring.
There is no useful development of insight into The Four Noble Truths or Impermanence, Not-Self, and Stress from a mind-state of nothingness, or similar mind-states. Useful and effective insight is developed with Shamatha-Vipassana meditation within the framework of the Eightfold Path.
The purpose of Shamatha-Vipassana meditation is primarily to develop concentration. Every time you find yourself caught up in your thinking and then return your mindfulness to your breath you are interrupting conditioned thinking and deepening concentration.
Give yourself a few moments to simply become aware of the sensation of breathing through the nose. Without placing any importance on thoughts, remain mindful of your breathing. Thoughts will continue to flow, we are conscious beings.
With mindfulness of your breath thoughts will no longer be a distraction. With practice, you will develop samadhi, a non-distracted quality of mind.
Gently but with strong intention, place your mindfulness on the sensation of breathing. This is the beginning of developing great concentration and minimizing discursive, reactionary and distracting thinking.
As thoughts arise, gently put your thoughts aside, not following one thought with another thought, and place your awareness on your breathing. As thoughts arise, gently put your thoughts aside and remain mindful of your breathing. This is called being mindful of the breath, holding in mind your breathing.
If noticing the breath at the tip of your nose is difficult, simply remain mindful of the sensation of breathing. This is the basic and fundamental technique that the Buddha taught for shamatha, for quieting the mind as a preliminary, but integral, practice to vipassana, or insight.
It should be noted here again that the Buddha did not teach just shamatha or just vipassana. Both shamatha and vipassana are a part of a singular method of meditation. The Buddha taught that “meditation should lead to tranquility and insight.”
In your day-to-day practice it is most effective to simply place your mindfulness on the sensation of breathing through the nose. Do not be concerned with interpreting whether a breath is long or short, shallow or deep, where it is felt most prominently, and do not try to alter the breath in any way. Simply begin meditation by putting aside thoughts as thoughts arise. Become mindful of the pure sensation of breathing. This simple and powerful method will quickly quiet the mind and bring calm abiding.
As your mind quiets and you are able to remain mindful of your breath for a few moments, dispassionately notice that you have feelings, emotional and/or physical. These feelings can be pleasant, unpleasant, painful or ecstatic. All feelings are simply to be acknowledged, recognized as impermanent, and put aside.
Through dispassionate mindfulness of whatever feelings arise in meditation and returning mindfulness to your breath you are interrupting discriminating, discursive and reactive conditioned thinking. Dispassionate mindfulness develops the ability to deepen concentration allowing for insight to arise.
You are beginning to train your mind to not be distracted by your own thoughts!
During meditation also take note of thoughts flowing. You are a conscious being and thoughts should be flowing. While it may seem peaceful, it is not conducive to developing concentration or insight when stuck in a trance-like mind state. Again, the purpose of this meditation is initially to not be distracted by your own thoughts.
When you find that you are caught up in your thoughts, with dispassionate mindfulness acknowledge that you are following one thought immediately with the next, and return your mindfulness to your breath. You are now creating spaciousness in your mind leading to deeper concentration and insight.
As your practice deepens you will become mindful of your perspective changing. You will develop a comprehensive view of your feelings and thoughts. You will be able to notice without reaction your own thought process and the intimate and clinging relationship between sensory contact, feelings, and discriminatory thoughts.
As your concentration deepens notice the impermanent nature of the quality of your mind.
You are developing the ability to stay mindfully present with whatever is arising without reaction while on your meditation cushion (or chair). This refined mindfulness will become more apparent off your cushion, too
Being mindful of your breath, feelings, thoughts and the quality of your own mind is known as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The lesson in week two will deepen your understanding of mindfulness in relation to the Dhamma…
At the end of each meditation session take a moment to notice the quality of your mind. This is integrating the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness into your meditation practice. Is your mind tranquil or agitated or distracted?
Dispassionately note the present quality of your mind. Be at peace with the quality of your mind in the present moment and you will immediately begin developing an understanding of impermanence and how your feelings and thoughts impact the quality of your mind.
Eventually remaining dispassionately mindful leads to the development of equanimity, a mind free of reaction, completely at peace and fully as life occurs. Equanimity is the free and natural state of an un-conditioned mind…
Establishing a Meditation Practice
Perhaps the most difficult challenge when beginning a meditation practice, and often as your practice develops, is organizing your life for practice. The busy-ness and nearly constant distractions of life are always creating the illusion that you are just too busy to practice. The irony is that meditators often find that they have more time for the most important activities of their lives when they do make the time for meditation practice. Committing to meditation twice a day and, within reason, keeping to this schedule is itself part of practice.
The most skillful time to practice is when you think you don’t want to or think you don’t have the time to sit. Every time you meditate you are diminishing the effects of conditioned thinking, including the conditioned thinking of aversion to practice.
As stated previously, meditating upon arising in the morning is usually the most effective time to schedule a first meditation session. If possible, meditating approximately 12 hours later in the day will provide a skillful balance to practice. If the only other time for practice is just before bed, be mindful of drowsiness, and if it is at times difficult to maintain alertness, try to adjust your schedule to earlier in the evening.
If it is possible to set aside a room solely for meditation, keep the room clean and clutter free. The room should also be well ventilated and seasonally not too hot or cold. A candle to light during meditation and perhaps a small statue of the Buddha as a mindful reminder of a human being who awakened can be an initial point of focus, but are not necessary.
If it is not possible to designate an entire room to your practice, a corner of a room that can be maintained as above will work just as well.
Developing a routine of place, time, posture and technique will greatly enhance your commitment to practice and help subdue your conditioned mind’s desire to avoid the peaceful and enlightening refuge of a true and effective meditation practice.
It is most effective to begin a meditation practice with just a few minutes of meditation at a time. By initially meditating for two or three minutes at a time, twice a day, you will not become disappointed or conclude that meditation is too difficult. As you become comfortable with two or three minutes of practice, gradually add a minute or two to your meditation time. Stay at this length of meditation practice until you are comfortable and feel it is time to lengthen your meditation practice again.
If you have an established meditation practice using a different method, please use the meditation method described herein for the duration of the course. If you are meditating for longer periods than a few minutes, but only once a day, it will be most effective to split your meditation practice into two sessions without increasing your overall meditation time.
Meditation practice is not an endurance test and should not create more stress by having too high expectations of yourself and your practice. The strongest impediment to establishing a meditation practice will prove to be your own judgments of yourself and your practice.
As you progress over the next nine weeks, gradually increase your meditation sessions to ten to twenty minutes. On occasion you may want to meditate for even longer periods. Take your time and remember that what is most important is a consistent practice that is free of grasping.
It is most skillful not to push yourself too hard and too fast, and also to not avoid increasing your length of meditation practice time when appropriate.
Establishing a meditation practice will be much more effective if done daily for short periods of time rather than long periods of meditation only occasionally.
Joining a regular meditation group that stays focused within the framework of The Eightfold Path is a great support to Dhamma practice.
If you are following the instructions, putting aside thoughts as they arise, not following a thought with a thought as best as you can, and returning your awareness to the sensation of breathing in your body, you are establishing a meditation practice.
Avoid judging yourself or your practice harshly. Always be loving and gentle with yourself and enjoy your practice.
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My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Acharya Buddharakkhita, Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.
Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.
I have made edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain contextual relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
Becoming-Buddha.com and Dhamma articles and recordings by John Haspel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.