In the past few weeks, I have been looking into Theravada in general, and Theravada meditation techniques in particular. I've taken a number of university classes on Buddhist culture and philosophy, so I am accutely aware of the differences between Theravada and the other branches of Buddhsim. However, I am so confused as to what Theravada meditation practices actually are. I have been doing Soto Zen shiktanaza meditation for a number of years, and can't figure out what the heck Theravada meditation is.
On other threads, I've noticed that many on this forum think that Zen shikantaza meditation is samatha practice due to lack of understanding of Zen practices and the etymology of the name "Zen." In shikantaza, you are firmly concentrated on the breath while remaining wide open open and alert to any thoughts, sense perceptions, feelings. You watch these phenomenon rise and pass while being firmly concentrated on the breath such as vipassana, but not exclusively on the breath as in Samatha. (This will inevitably cause someone to post that my description of shikantaza is not correct. Soto Zen is notorious for it's inability to accurately describe the process and its refusal to do so. However, I've tried to break it down so that other people can understand the differences). This is what I have been doing for years. So to then split this practice into two categories, and then to label/count/scan the body/whatever, it all leaves me confused as to what Theravada meditation actually is. And then you have some Theravada schools saying that there is no difference.
Could you help a currently Mahayana, possibly going-to-be Theravada brother out by answering the following questions:
1. What's the "labeling" practice that I keep seeing? Coming from shikantaza that emphasizes direct perception of dharmas without the mediation of language or conceptualization, this practice is really, really
jarring for me. Is this something that is intially used as a "crutch" to get beginners started and later abandoned when their practice is strong enough, like counting the breath or is this the main practice? MUST it be used in the beginning?
2. Which method should I start with? I understand the differences between samatha and vipassana. I also understand that some Theravada schools say that they're inseparable... All of this contradictory advice is really confusing to somehow who isn't already acquainted with the practice(s). So, if someone wants to start Theravada meditation, what do you do? Is it common for beginners to just start with vipassana?
3. These directions by Bhikkhu Sona, http://www.arrowriver.ca/dhamma/nimitta.html
, are they samatha, vipassana, or both?
4. The "in/out," "rising/falling," "body scanning," "labeling," "county the breath" practices... are the all interchangeable or are they separate practices? Are they the main practice or 'crutches' to get you started? Are these used with samatha or vipassana?