After 25 years of meditation practice and related study of Buddhism (including three years in an advanced practice group), I had an epiphany recently that there are just a few salient principles that are the most important to study. This summary is simply my point-of-view interpretations based on practice and study, an ongoing work in progress, an opinion without attachment, as opposed to an opinion based on belief.
Benefits of meditation
Buddhism today in its Western forms is the foundation of a variety of paths for improving well-being. Fundamentally, it is about relieving suffering in our lives and developing a deeper appreciation for living in the world. The current predominate form in the United States is mindful meditation.
As coined by Jon Kabat Zinn, “Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, non-judgmentally.” This implies meditation in some form.
There is now a large body of research that attests to the power of this simple practice to affect well-being. Sustained regular practice, studies show, cultivates attention, emotion regulation, and compassion, as well as reducing effects of chronic pain, anxiety, and depression. Neuroscience studies have also shown that it affects the structure of the brain and thus provides a way to “re-condition” ourselves to overcome negative habits that are part of lifelong conditioning.
Mindfulness practices are sometimes called a secular form of Buddhism. Other forms of Buddhism appear as religions. However, the teachings of Buddhism (the dharma) are not religious in the Western sense of the word. Dharma refers to both “the truth of how things are” and Buddha’s teachings in general. It is a non-theistic spirituality and the primary admonition in its practice is to validate the teachings from direct experience rather than embracing dogmatic endorsement of specific beliefs.
Finally, consistent practice engenders profound experiences of contentment, peace, equanimity, and joy, and in advanced practice provides transcendent knowledge of inter-dependence, unity, and unconditional love.
ALL WORDS ARE CONCEPTS: TRANSMISSION, TRANSLATION, TRANSCRIPTION, INTERPRETATION (T.T.T.I.)
The reader should be aware that dharma teachings (much like virtually all spiritual works) are all conceptual forms created from human minds that appeal to the mind but are intended to be “pointers” to wisdom that can be realized with meditation practice.
At the core of meditation practice, strictly speaking, is a “doctrine of salvation,” the primary aspect of which is relief from suffering in all its forms, varying from pain to dissatisfaction. The dharma, passed down over a period of 2500 years and derived from knowledge passed down well before that, still maintains its relevance.
The lineage of these teachings can introduce biases and varied interpretations (or at least change through time) by the following factors:
- Transmission from teacher to teacher – Guatama Buddha (~563 BCE/480 BCE – ~483 BCE/400 BCE) never wrote anything down. His disciples began documenting his teachings several hundred years after his death. Keep this in mind when somebody says, “The Buddha said…”
- Translation – Starting with Sanskrit and Pali, his teachings have been translated into many other languages, possibly losing nuance along the way.
- Transcription –Due to the impermanence of written documents on inferior materials like papyrus, scribes were entrusted with copying repeatedly for hundreds of years. Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern has a stunning description of this process in the Middle Ages.
- Interpretation – Each teacher and student invariably has their own interpretation of the words and concepts based on their conditioning and depth of practice. There is no literal truth, as is the case for all sacred documents.
FUNDAMENTAL PATHS OF BUDDHISM
In my view, two fundamental paths have emerged in Western interpretations of the dharma. There are certain basic Buddhist concepts that one needs to understand to embark on either of the two paths:
Mindfulness Path – In the spiritual language of Vipassana Buddhism, this path can be considered a metaphysical psychology that aims at opening awareness through a process of self-discovery of the fundamental nature of life and death. In Western modernity, it has become a science-based meditation focusing on personal development aimed at psychological well-being or happiness.
Awakening Path – An advanced spirituality-based “deep” Buddhism, I believe, this path is represented by “non-dual” understanding of the underlying connectedness of all living organisms, aimed at a transcendental form of enlightenment sometimes referred to as “waking up.” This “goal-less goal” is a form of awakening that yields “living in the world but not entangled with it.”
BASIC DHARMA CONCEPTS
Basic concepts are sufficient for beginning a meditation practice and engaging the “Mindfulness Path” but seem to be an essential understanding for the “Awakening Path.”
Understanding Pain and Suffering
As Buddhism author Jack Kornfield says, 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 or suffering. In Buddhist philosophy, there are two kinds of pain and suffering:
- UNAVOIDABLE – Certain kinds of pain are inevitable or unavoidable in life: birth, sickness, aging, and death.
- OPTIONAL – Other kinds of pain and suffering are “optional,” in that we inflict them upon ourselves through judging, taking things personally, thinking that we are unworthy, and adopting behaviors that undermine happiness and can cause harm to ourselves and others.
“Three afflictions” describe how we think or act to cause suffering to others and ourselves.
- Desire/greed/sensuality/clinging/attachment – This affliction is a reflection of our “wanting,” an attachment to things and good feelings, things we like.
- Aversion/hatred/rejection – We push away from things we do not like to focus only on the things we do like or desire.
- Ignorance/delusion/denial/avoidance – Not seeing clearly, we ignore or deny that we suffer or believe certain beliefs and opinions are true.
Understanding Basic Buddhist Morality
There are ten precepts for nuns and monks, which appear to be in the realm of renunciations (Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism), five which apply to all. I interpret these to be either conscious or unconscious behaviors.
- Killing living creatures.
- Taking what is not given.
- Engaging in sexual misconduct or abuse of power.
- Unwise speech or lying.
- Intoxicants that cause heedlessness.
UNDERSTANDING meditation practice
The two principle aspects of meditation are awareness and acceptance of all our experience through bodily sensations: all five senses, plus feelings and emotions caused by thoughts. Consciousness is axiomatic and is the source of awareness; we cannot experience anything without being aware and conscious of it.
The three qualities of experience are pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral.
The first two tend to create desire or avoidance; wanting things to be more, better, or different from the way they are.
Neutral suggests non-reactivity or unperturbability and accepting the flow of how things are (their “IS-ness”) or the realization that nothing is happening in the moment other than what we are sensing through our body and our mind.
IS-ness connotes the reality that things are the way they are, there is no such thing as “this shouldn’t have happened.” This is the goal of meditation practice: the acceptance of what is.
The body and sensations are the portal to all experience. The space or gap between these experiences is the portal to the absolute.
Thoughts have different forms, but they all include elements of fantasy, imagination, images, discursive discussion, and figuring things out. But they do not really exist, there is nothing solid or real about them, so when we believe them to be true, we can suffer when reality does not unfold in a way we thought or expected.
This is tantamount to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) where we intentionally debunk our “distorted” thoughts as the source of depression and anxiety.
Thought also is the source of who we think we are, insistently updating the ongoing “it’s-all-about-me” narrative in our minds. When we enter on the Buddhist path, we become more mindful of our thoughts and actions.
BASIC MEDITATION TECHNIQUES
- Sit, stand, lie down, or walk in a quiet and comfortable spot.
- Breathe in the belly – start by following the breath in and out. Come back to this when caught in obsessive thought. This is the practice of awareness.
- Scan the body for all sensations without trying to change them. This is the practice of acceptance.
- Monitor the mind and step back to view thoughts as thought and intend not to engage in the content of the thoughts. Awareness and acceptance.
- Practice can be broadened and deepened by embracing all experience together as one awareness, by changing the focus to the silence and stillness as foreground and ongoing experience as background.
- Try (in an effortless-effort sort of way) to embrace the sense of your first practice to maintain “beginner’s mind.”
- As one sage says, “Start with ten minutes every day unless you do not have time, then do it for one hour!”