The Practical Aspects of Establishing Mindfulness — Part Two
Mindfulness and The Path of Calmness and Insight
In the early days of the spreading practice of the Buddhadhamma (i.e. during the period of time in which the Buddha lived and taught), often referred to as "early Buddhism," Siddhattha Gotama taught a two-pronged approach to the practice of meditation which, in its essence, can be summarized as: "Calm the mind and develop clear seeing." These two aspects of meditation contemplation are known as samatha
(meaning "calm" or "tranquility") and vipassana
(literally "clear seeing," but more often translated as "insight"). This system of teaching samatha and vipassana
— the "and" here indicating that they were to be taught together as one simultaneous method of meditation training — worked very well throughout the Buddha's lifetime, producing countless ariyas
(noble ones or followers of the Buddha's Dhamma) and arahats
("awakened ones" or "one who has awakened"), as Gotama wandered back and forth across the plains of northern India stopping here and there to deliver his discourses on the Dhamma.
After the Buddha's demise and after the sangha of monks First Council of recitations given by five hundred arahats
established the suttas
(primarily the Pali Nikayas and later what came to be the Chinese Agamas; the discourses of the Buddha) and the vinaya
(the rules of discipline for the monastic community) as the authenticated word of the Buddha, inevitably there came to be divisions in thought among the sects that began to form and develop as a result of their differing take on the original teachings of Gotama. These differences of opinion eventually led to the various schools of what came to be known as the fledgling religion of Buddhism.
(As an aside, it is interesting to note that in all the Pali scriptures there is not any mention of the word "Buddhism" or even the idea of any religion called Buddhism. Gotama never used the word and refused to ascent to a successor as head of the sangha after his death. Before he died he implored his followers to take the suttas
and the vinaya
that he had taught them as their teacher and refuge after the occasion of his death. He was well aware of how his teachings were liable to be altered and changed once he was no longer on the scene to set things straight, and he wanted to give succeeding generations of followers a reliable guideline by which to adhere with regard to the authentic teaching which they should use to settle any disputes about what was Dhamma and what was not. If a teaching is not found in the suttas
or the vinaya
, then it was not to be considered authenticated Dhamma, i.e. as coming from the Buddha's mouth and having his approval.)
Once the sangha of monks and nuns broke up into smaller groups, each with their own particular views on certain issues, it was inevitable that individual teachers would emerge and appeal to one group or another, and that differing ways of teaching the Dhamma would evolve. Yet as long as these groups taught essentially the same Dhamma and vinaya
and recognized the validity of each other's ordination lineage, movement and relative harmony between the groups would present little problem. And as Rupert Gethin points out in his book The Foundations of Buddhism
, "Since the Vinaya left monks and nuns largely free to develop the Buddha's teachings doctrinally as they saw fit, there would be little incentive to provoke a schism on purely doctrinal grounds."
As accomplished and learned monks arose within the monastic community and methods of recording and preserving the teachings were developed, groups of accomplished monks gathered to compile what are known as the commentaries on the written Dhamma. As the suttas
and the vinaya
came to be compiled in written form, and as the various sects of "Buddhism" grew and developed in India and throughout China and the countries in southeast Asia, it was inevitable that these sects developed their own sense of "Buddhist doctrine" and how best to present and teach this body of knowledge.
I'm not certain just when the idea of separating samatha
as separate practices all their own began (there are some indications that this may have begun even during ancient times, at sometime within the first few centuries after the Buddha's death), but in the more recent history of the twentieth century, evidence of this split is more clear-cut. Accomplished meditation masters in southeast Asia (Mahasi Sayadaw chief among them) decided that it was easier to teach these two abilities to lay practitioners separately, and so they began to teach it this way in order to better assist their students to develop these abilities more efficiently. As a crop of American and other Western practitioners who had trained with these masters in the East returned home to teach, they too continued this practice of teaching samatha
as separate practices.
There's really nothing wrong with doing this as long as one realizes that these two aspects of meditation training were originally meant to be taught side by side, and that insight (vipassana
) into the practice of calming meditation could help speed up one's development of samatha
while, conversely, developing a calm mind could help speed up the development of "clear seeing" within the practice method of vipassana
. Some people develop insight first and then calm, while others develop calm first and then insight follows. Still others develop the two in tandem, slipping seamlessly back and forth between the two within the space of a single sitting session. This latter (third) type seems to be the natural outcome of a certain type of individual who is given to following their intuition. The important idea to take away from this is that samatha
are not competing methods of meditation, but rather are two qualities of mind that a person may develop or become endowed with, and that they ought to be recognized
as being developed together.
Whether or not one wishes to develop one so-called method of meditation (samatha
) as a separate practice is up to the individual. As mentioned before, there is really nothing wrong with this. What was important for me personally to recognize was that for insight to arise, I needed a calm mind; I needed first to create the condition and space for insight to arise before it would arise on a relatively consistent basis. Yet even so, insight nevertheless arose during my practice to develop calm; it arose in the form of being able to clearly see what was needed in order to enter absorption. So, in that sense, insight (clear seeing or vipassana
) into the process of absorbing the mind in an object (a samatha
practice) was necessary in order to develop jhana so that I could turn around and use that to explore insight into phenomena.
For a more complete explanation about the issue of calm and insight as it is viewed from the discourses, please see Thanissaro Bhikkhu's essay One Tool Among Many, The Place of Vipassana in Buddhist Practice
As for a practical take on this issue, I offer my own experience on this subject, which may mirror the experiences of many others who have been through this within their own practice. Before I even knew anything about how to go about performing insight meditation as it was being taught within more structured programs of development such as the one that Mahasi Sayadaw taught, I knew intuitively that before anything effective could happen which might foster unbinding, that I needed to calm the mind down first in order to just gain a foothold on what was there in terms of phenomena to be observed. I wanted to explore these deep states of meditation to see where they would lead, and so I practiced to attain absorption, which is a samatha
It took a few weeks to develop, but eventually I came to be able to recognize (at least in a vague way; "vague" meaning that I wasn't always certain about being able to identify, in terms of sensation, two of the initiating factors of absorption: piti
) all the signs of absorption, the arising and subsiding of the four (or five, depending on which definition one follows; the fifth factor, according to the commentarial tradition, being ekaggata
or one-pointedness) primary jhana factors necessary for the first jhana to arise and so forth.
As I was able to attain to deeper and more subtle levels of calm, an inner faculty of mind would sometimes quite naturally take over, and the mind would be treated to the sudden arising of insight about this or that (whatever subject I might have been concentrating on at the time). On many occasions this arising of insight occurred without my intending it to occur, and seemed to be the quite natural outcome of having calmed the mind. There were times when I might have been reading about some aspect of the Dhamma beforehand, and during the course of the absorption attainment, the mind would naturally incline toward insight about that aspect of the Dhamma. Kind of like priming the pump, you could say.
From the perspective of a more mature practice, it is clear to me that Gotama's method of teaching meditation (that is, as it is explained in the discourses) is meant to allow the natural inclinations of the mind to take over. It becomes an effortless process the deeper one goes into it. If a person follows Gotama's instruction to "go practice jhana" as opposed to the more modern direction being given by many contemporary meditation teachers to "go do vipassana
" that the necessary faculties for unbinding the mind will be more quickly and efficiently developed. Yet, as I say, it is up to the individual practitioner to decide for himself.
"The gift of truth exceeds all other gifts" — Dhammapada, v. 354 Craving XXIV