INTRODUCTION TO THE PATH OF MEDITATION
By Ajahn Brahmavamso
12 December 1997
In the Buddhist Path of Meditation we develop the mind in silence, peacefulness and stillness. In all types of meditation silence is just so important for when we are speaking we are not meditating, we are saying something, we are actually doing business in the world. We are not stopping, not listening and experiencing the world.
One monk told me about a very young novice who was at Ajahn Chah’s monastery. One evening when Ajahn Chah was giving an all night long Dhamma talk without stopping, this poor little novice, who was not sitting on a comfortable cushion but on the hard concrete floor started to get very sore, bored and upset. He started thinking, "When is he going to stop?" "Why doesn’t he stop?" and these thoughts were torturing him for sometime until the novice had a moment of insight, which clearly illustrates what a moment of insight and its effect is. It was to turn the question around. Instead of thinking, "Why doesn’t Ajahn Chah stop?" he thought, "Why don’t I stop?" Then as a result of that thought he stopped, he went silent and sat the rest of the night in a deep state of concentration, a Jhana. It was the first time in his life because now he realised how to stop the inner chatter of the mind.
By realising that there is no need to externally speak during meditation you can also realise that there is no need to speak inside either. You can be silent and can just experience. When there is a sound you can listen to it with 100% attention, not interfering with it with your inner speech. When there is a feeling in the body, instead of getting into a conversation with it you can just experience it fully, not knowing what it is, not knowing where it has come from, or where it is going to go. You are just knowing it as it occurs in this moment. Just knowing, just feeling without saying anything about it. Just knowing what you see, what is in your mind, what comes in through all of the senses. Just knowing and experiencing fully by taking away this inner commentary, this business, this description which is actually just a veil of ignorance covering the reality of this sensory experience.
What you say about the world is not what the world actually is. All of these thoughts, these ideas, this inner commentary is actually the delusion which stops you seeing reality. So be quiet, there is no need to say anything and not only will you then become wise and see the reality of all of this but also you will become very peaceful and you will enjoy the beauty and bliss of peacefulness, which meditation is all about.
As you incline the mind towards this meditation, towards this silence, towards unity rather than diversity, then you will find that the mind will be inclining towards a very peaceful and deep reality.
Sometimes people study Buddhism by reading books and listening to talks but that is really just child’s play, preliminary practice, watching the pots but not cooking the food. To cook the food you have to practice meditation, to experience what all these books and teachings are pointing towards – this silence of the mind.
During meditation we develop this silence of the mind. In this silence the mind starts to manifest to you. As if it is this beautiful Lotus but it is covered by these five different kinds of weeds that are growing around it so you do not even know that the very beautiful and fragrant Lotus is there. The weeds that are smothering the Lotus are the 5 external senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and physical touch. The job of meditation is to tranquilise those 5 senses, to take your attention away from the world of the 5 senses, to get to the point where those 5 senses turn off and disappear and all that is left is the mind. It is similar to silence and stillness because for most people the whole world consists of those 5 senses. We talk about the world and reality and we take this reality to be that what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch. We think this is real. We take sensory experience to be reality not realising that it is just a cover for what is truly real. So we are going to turn away from the world of the 5 senses and this turning away is the Path of Meditation.
The physical touch of the body is going to be painful sometimes when you sit in meditation. It is going to be hot and cold. There are going to be itches, aches and pains. Remember that that is part of meditation. The only way you can get some peace in this meditation is not by getting an airconditioner or heater, or by sitting on a waterbed instead of sitting on a hard floor. It would not matter there would still be these aches, pains, and discomforts in the body. The Buddha pointed out a way of practice called meditation in which you can sit down in reasonable comfort but not in total comfort. Turn away from this sense of touch and from all these 5 senses to the point that they completely disappear. It is only in the disappearance of those 5 senses that there is comfort, peace, that there is a stilling of this agitation of the sensory world.
This is what is called the Path of Meditation, the quieting down of the world of the senses. We shut our eyes in meditation so we do not see what is around us. Very often when I close my eyes I use the metaphor, the skillful means of imagining that I am in one of the remote places I have been as a Monk, in mountains, in caves, in remote jungles, wherever there is solitude. When I close my eyes I imagine that I am in that solitude. That imagination, that using of the mind to imagine solitude all around me for many miles becomes a very useful psychological cue for developing that feeling of peace inside of the mind. For many miles there is no living being and I am completely alone. The hermit in the jungle, desert or mountains, alone with no business in the whole world. That immediately cuts away at a lot of the business and concerns in our life because so much of that business is concerning other people, our relations to them and our duties towards them.
During meditation you have no duties to these people; you have no responsibilities at all, you have literally and metaphorically joined a monastery for the period you meditate. You have left the world. You have not go a husband, wife, parents, children, family and friends etc, during your meditation you have not got a job, occupation, or any responsibility whatsoever. You imagine that and there is a lot of truth to that imagination. When you imagine that, it becomes very easy to let go of a world in which you have no business for the period of meditation. It means that that world disappears little by little until it cannot reach you anymore. When it cannot reach you then you feel the solitude of a hermit, you feel some of the joys of being in a monastery, you feel the solitude of having left all of that behind. You feel alone and free like a bird with no baggage. So we use these imaginations, these ways of regarding the world with our eyes closed.
Whatever noise there is here just in the background. Although we are in the middle of the city we could as well be in the middle of the mountains, or jungle because the noise is only like the wind in the distance, just a hum. It is pretty constant which means that very soon the sense of sound will disappear. I am talking about the external sound but the most difficult sound to turn off is the inner sound. The ability not to say anything about what you are experiencing. If you can notice that the inner sound conversation, chatter is just so much noise, such a disturbance, like a noisy neighbour when you want to be peaceful and quiet. So see if you can tell that noisy neighbour to be quiet for this period of meditation. You do not need that chatter. If you really want to be quiet, to stop that inner chatter then you can do it so easily. So often the reason why the inner chatter persists is just because we do not want to stop it, we are too interested in it, too used and too attached to it as a deep habit of the mind.
When we have shut our eyes we make a commitment to inner and outer silence, we are just sitting still and the feelings in the body such as aches, pains and itches come and go,we do not bother with them at all. Imagine that you are reading a good book or watching the television or going to the movies and you know that you can let go of the physical body. You can be reading that book and be in physical discomfort but do not realise it until you finish the chapter. You can have all sorts of aches and pains while you are watching television that you do not realise until the movies finishes and you get up. You know when you are absorbed in something else that the body disappears. This disappearance of the body is what we are aiming for.
So the Buddha taught this way of meditation which is a very gradual process for moving away from the body and gaining access to the mind. This way of meditation, in brief is in six stages:
Stage 1: awareness of the present moment
Stage 2: silent awareness of the present moment
Stage 3: silent awareness of the breath
Stage 4: full awareness of the breath from the very beginning to the end
Stage 5: calming down the breath until you get to:
Stage 6: the appearance of the Samadhi-nimitta.
Samadhi-nimitta means the sign of Samadhi, of this inner stillness. It is also called the Citta-nimitta – the sign of the mind where the mind starts to manifest to you. Stage six is the stabilising of that sign of the mind or, if you prefer, the plunging into the sign which causes complete absorption in the realm of the mind. This absorption is called Jhana
This is what we are going to be doing in meditation. It is great fun to do this. If you can actually get all the way into a Jhana, a state of absorption, it will be one of the most amazing and profound experiences of your life. These are very powerful and moving experiences of great stillness where many unpleasant and disturbing things disappear. Not only is the experience of a Jhana very beautiful but it is also full of wisdom and insight. The insight of the experience is what these beautiful Jhana states are, to understand how they are brought about and what stops you from getting into the understanding why you do not go for this beauty and bliss, why you do not access and enjoy it. This is where you find out about the Dhamma, the Teaching, the Truth of Existence, that is what the Buddha spent all his time talking about. If you follow this particular path of developing the mind all along the way you pick up all of this wisdom.
You do need a goal to gain wisdom. It is like going to University and taking a degree in a subject. It is not the degree that gives you all the knowledge it is all the things you learnt on the way. That is where you really gain your understanding, knowledge and wisdom. It is as if the degree, the qualification at the end is a carrot that makes you go that much further. You may get that carrot or you may not get it, but it does not matter because without that carrot you would never have striven so much and travelled so far. So I never feel that I am pushing people too far when I talk about Jhanas. Even if you do not go all the way you still go much further than you would if I never mentioned them. By going much further you will learn so much more about the body and mind, so much more about the way you look at the world and the habits which you have developed over this life and previous lives which stop you from experiencing the bliss of freedom.
This is all what you learn as you go this path of quietness. Ajahn Chah said again and again that one cannot split up the path of Vipassana, insight and the path of Samadhi, peace. These two go together, have to go together. But if we emphasise wisdom then due to our western conditioning we start thinking too much, we start conceptualising too much thinking that wisdom lies in these ideas. But wisdom lies in the silence beyond ideas. As the Buddha said "Whatever you think, it will always be something else." The reality will be different than thought, beyond thought, completely separate from what you can ever imagine it to be. This is why the true wisdom is so rare in this world, because people try to reach it just through thought, through conceptualising, through reading, studying, and listening to others.
The best advice people can give if they give a talk is the advice to be quiet. Listen, experience and stop then you might see something. Really all I need to teach is just that one word ‘stop’ and if people could actually understand the power of that word they would not need anymore teachings. All my talks are elaboration on the same subject of ‘stop’ in the same way as one can elaborate one thing in millions of different ways. Just as a Lotus flower held between two mirrors produces hundreds of images so all these talks I give are just hundreds of images of the same thing. The main point of this meditation is to develop that peacefulness, quietness, silence, emptiness, that ‘stoppingness’ of the mind.
As I mentioned there is a clear path into that stillness, a gradual training which is like a ladder. You have to go on the first rung before you can go to the second rung … 3rd … 4th … before you can go to the last rung and then you are up in the loft. You have to go rung by rung. In the same way you have to really go rung by rung from awareness of the present moment, to silent awareness of the present moment, from silent awareness of the breath …… to plunging into the Samadhi-nimitta. This is the way of Buddhist meditation. I shall describe each one of these steps as we go along. I shall describe what you should be doing and what you should look out for. I shall describe all the skillful means for gaining the beautiful states of Jhana and also I shall describe the obstacles that stop you from gaining them. If you know the obstacles and dangers then you are halfway in overcoming them. The next thing is to apply the skillful means for overcoming them.
Remember that Buddhist meditation has been going for two thousand five hundred years. It is not a new thing. It is a well worn path and the techniques for overcoming the obstacles have been refined down so well that basically there is no doubt about the instructions, about what to do and how to do it. It is just a question of not resisting of not trying to find your own quick way, of just giving in by following these beautiful instructions of the Buddha.
It is like the instruction manual you get when you buy a television. Isn’t it the case that so few people ever read these instructions until something goes wrong? Then they realise that if you would have read and followed the instructions that nothing would have gone wrong. So I am going to give you those instructions which are necessary for meditation. The manual which has been written by the Lord Buddha on how to meditate on how to free the mind, how to experience the Jhanas and the bliss of the stages of enlightenment. This manual is so well written but the biggest problem is in the first place, listening to it, taking it seriously and carefully following these instructions.
There is something inside each of us that I call the donkey mind. No matter how beautiful something is in front of you the donkey mind will say "No, I do not want to go!" "I do not want to do this because it was not me who invented all of this". It is just that rebelliousness in the mind. This donkey mind that is always so stubborn and will never do what it is told, is recognised in the Teachings of the Buddha. Ways are given in these teachings to overcome the donkeyness of your mind and little by little you can trick the donkey into getting into these beautiful states of peace.
A meditation retreat is like going on a holiday, something that I look forward to. As soon as I get into a meditation centre I thing "Great". Because I can do all of this meditation and I know to what beauty and peace this will lead. It is like being released from prison. Imagine that you are in prison and you can go on parole. You are out of prison and soon will have to go back again.
So enjoy every moment of this meditation. This is such an important teaching because meditation is not hard, it is not torture. Meditation, if you know its way and meaning, is the most beautiful path. If you can develop that appreciation of the joys of silence, solitude and peace then you are halfway to success in meditation. Never look at meditation as something hard, because if you do you are adding this perception which really does not belong to meditation. In meditation you are letting go of suffering, of burdens, of all of that which creates problems tension, tightness and pain in the body and the mind. If you let go of that which is suffering that which manifests in its place is the beautiful peaceful happiness. To use a simile of the Buddha it is like when the clouds break and disperse and the radiant full moon can be seen in the sky, but when the clouds are there the full moon is as if not there at all. When the clouds of doing business thinking and worrying disappear the radiant mind will appear. It is such a wonderful sight, so peaceful, so beautiful and it is achievable for you.
It is good to have a reasonable goal for oneself in the meditation, especially during a retreat. Once you have set yourself the goal of what you want to achieve and you have made it very clear then do not keep thinking about it every moment in your meditation and get frustrated when you have not got there yet. Once you have a major goal then see if for every meditation you can set a little goal. When you set goals in each meditation then set reasonable goals. Be realistic about your abilities and about what you can achieve at the very beginning of your meditation, set that realistic goal which is just testing you a little bit, pushing you a little bit further. Tell yourself "This is what I want to achieve", then trust in the mind to remember what it is supposed to do and you do not need to think about that goal anymore. The trouble with people in the world is that when they have goals then they keep worrying about them every moment.
Setting a goal is like aiming your arrow as an archer - as an archer when you put the bow up you put an arrow in the bow and pull the arrow back as you stretch the wood of the bow, that is when you aim – at the beginning of the shot. Once you have let the arrow go then you cannot aim anymore. The aiming has been done, now you just follow with your eyes the flight of the arrow and see where it goes. In the same way at the beginning of your meditation you put your meditation object as it were in the bow. You aim by setting yourself a goal, you pull the bow back with all of your strength and then you let go. You follow the arrow of your meditation object and see where it goes. If you had a good aim at the beginning, if the goal has been very well and carefully set then it is amasing to see how the mind will do the job. You do not need to keep on reminding, forcing and disturbing it.
This is one way you will learn how to work with this mind. If you do not give the mind any goal at all then it might feel a little bit peaceful at first but you find that the mind will go all over the place like an arrow which has not been directed at all. There is no effort at the beginning and that is why it feels peaceful but you do not achieve anything since the mind is just an ordinary wandering mind. So set yourself reasonable goals for each of your meditations and see how far you can get. See how much you can learn on the way.
Two or three minutes before the end of each meditation you should see how far you have come. See what your state of mind actually is. Give a very short assessment; peaceful or agitated, free or imprisoned, bright and happy or tense and stressed. See what type of mind you are experiencing and continue the reviewing of your meditation by seeing what you have been doing during this meditation. This is where you learn about meditation.
If you find that your mind is not very peaceful you understand that this is because you have been wasting your time by thinking, fantasising and dreaming, not really following the instructions. When the mind is peaceful, bright and beautiful you look back and you find that you understood the instruction because you followed them correctly.
Like a bird that soars in the sky so the meditator delves into the beautiful depths of the mind. Those of you who are philosophically inclined and are interested in the nature of the mind will understand through your own experience in meditation the nature of the mind and with it you will understand the nature of that which you call self, god, the world, the universe, the whole lot. It is there you will understand these things, it is there you will become enlightened, not in the realm of thought but in the realm of inner silence of the mind. This meditation is wonderful, it promises so much and much of what it promises it will give you.