How important is technique?

General discussion of issues related to Theravada Meditation, e.g. meditation postures, developing a regular sitting practice, skillfully relating to difficulties and hindrances, etc.

How important is technique?

Postby meindzai » Wed Feb 03, 2010 10:32 pm

Well here's one for you.

I have to admit that I have jumped around when it comes to meditation methods, objects, techniques, etc. I'm sure I'm not the only one. I've even battled with the question of whether meditation is of any importance at all, or practical for a householder. Ultimately I've decided that it is, at least for me, but which one? Vipassana, samatha, Metta?

But even within any of those techniques there are a myriad of approaches. Focus on the breath - but where? Part of the breath or the whole of it? Make a mental note of sensations - but how vigorously, and what labels to use? Start with metta to yourself or...

Of course the answer to these questions is "ask your teacher." And the usual advise in terms of which technique to use is to stick with one - keep working on it. Don't keep changing techniques. Which is good advice, especially if you're just starting.

But the more I practice the more I can't help but wonder "Does it even matter?"

I don't mean to discourage anybody from whatever technique they are doing, but I myself am getting to a point where it seems like my mind is going to do it's thing, and the less I interfere the better. Insofar as the "effects" of my meditation, I generally notice that the only constant is really more=better. Meaning more time spent on the cushion and more consistency seem to be the key factors - not the technique.

When I first began to realize this I thought that maybe it was some influence remaining from my earlier days doing Zen, which tends to put less emphasis on "doing." But on further reflection it has a lot to do with the Suttas, since the Buddha tends to describe jhana as a result of things like sila and restraint and such, rather than any particular technique. When the Buddha describes the life of a monk going forth - he starts by describing their leaving the household, shaving their heads, practicing virtue, sense-restraint, and so forth, then sitting under a tree, attaining jhana, going through the higher jhanas, attaining the knowledges and becoming an arahant.

In particular the Cetana Sutta tells us that you don't have to do anything to attain jhana. It just happens when the conditions are right - conditions over which we do have influence - starting from virtue. And to me, meditation is sila. It is kind of hard to break the precepts when you're just sitting there.

I'm not advocating a particular position here or telling people to drop technique - especially when just starting. I just feel like we often need to be told what to *do* when we sit becuase we are so used to *doing* and this is where meditation techniques may be useful. Curious what other's thoughts are on this.

-M
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Re: How important is technique?

Postby Ben » Wed Feb 03, 2010 10:55 pm

Hi Meindzai

I'm from the other end of the experience spectrum, so to speak. I've been practicing the same technique I began with 24 years ago under the guidance of the same teacher and I imagine will continue to practice for the rest of my life. I think the whole point of learning a technique is to learn how to effortlessly observe and allow the necessary conditions for jhana or nana to manifest. The technique is mearly a tool that one uses to help develop the mental states of sammasamadhi and vipassana. Technique is important because it allows you to develop effortless observation and the more time you devote to a particular meditation technique, the more you develop in your practice and develop those mental qualities of sammasamadhi and nana. For a beginner I think technique is crucial.
In fact, the way I would describe my meditation, whether it be the samatha form of anapana or observing vedana, is 'not doing anything', not even reacting. In the words of Bob Dylan: just sitting here watching the river flow. The only meditation technique where I feel I might be doing rather than extending an equanimous awareness is the practice of metta bhavana and the sharing of merits. And that is probably because I find the generation of the mental states of metta, upekkha, mudita and karuna difficult.
I agree with you that an important aspect of meditative practice is putting the time in. Devoting yourself to the practice. I disagree that sila = meditation. Sila is ethical conduct which conditions samadhi and in turn panna. There are various forms of panna but the wisdom which is liberative is bhavana-maya-panna wisdom that arises from mental cultivation (practice). Samadhi is more than just the removal of hindrances.
Anyway, they're just my thoughts prior to meditating again.
metta

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Re: How important is technique?

Postby zavk » Wed Feb 03, 2010 11:24 pm

I don't think having a technique itself is a problem. The problem is that because of our conditioning, we modern folks add a lot of expectations to 'technique'. I like the question, 'Does it even matter?' But I would direct the question not so much at the technique itself but at the preconceptions and expectations I have of technique.

This has probably been mentioned before, but Ven. Analayo's book on the Satipatthana Sutta helped to loosened up some of my previous preconceptions about technique. Yet at the same time it also gave me a new appreciation of technique.
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Re: How important is technique?

Postby Cittasanto » Wed Feb 03, 2010 11:25 pm

I agree with Ben to a large extent, but I feel it can be beneficial to try other techniques after a while, they may have a slightly different approach which may help. it isn't so much try every technique out there rather look at the style and see if it has any benefits to the established practice.

there are at the end of the day only so many ways we can watch the breath.
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Re: How important is technique?

Postby retrofuturist » Wed Feb 03, 2010 11:28 pm

Greetings meindzai,

Do you consider things like satipatthana or anapanasati to be "techniques", or by technique are you referring here exclusively to modern techniques?

(FWIW, satipatthana, complemented by some yoniso manasikara is my general approach to bhavana)

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Retro. :)
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Re: How important is technique?

Postby Goofaholix » Thu Feb 04, 2010 12:02 am

In general it doesn't matter what technique a meditator chooses, what does matter much more is the attitude of the mind.

But when a technique is chosen meditators should keep at it long enough to get a handle on it. It's common for beginners to expect something to happen straight away and when it doesn't they blame the technique and want to try something else, this is a bad habit to get into. I think beginners should be encouraged to plug away at a technique for a few years and only deviate with the specific instructions of a teacher.

For experienced meditators technique is much less important and i think most experienced meditators gradually move more towards a techniqueless technique, and hopefully they also have enough awareness of when things are going off the rails and they need to reach into their toolkit and start using a technique for a while to restore balance.

Any technique can easily become a source of attachment, and can easily turn into a rut. I've been practicing with teachers who teach awareness of the awareness a lot these days and I notice a lot of students struggle to let go of the breath, they haven't realised they've got into a rut with it and it's not the breath that's important it's the mind.
"Proper effort is not the effort to make something particular happen. It is the effort to be aware and awake each moment." - Ajahn Chah
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Re: How important is technique?

Postby meindzai » Thu Feb 04, 2010 12:06 am

retrofuturist wrote:Greetings meindzai,

Do you consider things like satipatthana or anapanasati to be "techniques", or by technique are you referring here exclusively to modern techniques?

Metta,
Retro. :)


I feel the anapanasati sutta is a more straightforward meditation Sutta. I think the satipatthana is a huge list of phenomenah more than it is about bhavana. There are aspects that are suited to sitting meditation at least in the beginning, but then there are clearly things that are meant to be contemplation in action, and other aspects that seem more prescriptive or directed towards a particular goal such as eliminating lust.

Modern methods seem to be adapted from these two suttas, but I've tried using them directly just to see what would happen. Anapanasati I did step by step, meaning I would literally go from the first step in the first tetrad and actually work my way up in any one particular session. Though I tended to remain in the first tetrad or sometimes the first two "steps" of the second.

One I wrote an entire year calendar to focus on different aspects of the Satipathanna Sutta. I even blogged about it for 30 weeks or so before I ran out of steam and had some physical problems which prevented me from being able to do sitting meditation for awhile. http://bloggingthesatipatthana.blogspot ... ction.html

It was still a cool experiment.

-M
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Re: How important is technique?

Postby retrofuturist » Thu Feb 04, 2010 12:11 am

Greetings meindzai,

Well, you raise another interesting distinction... does a "technique" imply a particular posture?

I consider that I'm doing satipatthana as I type to you now. Right at this moment, the 3rd satipatthana on state of mind is predominant, but it could easily be (let me switch now to...) feeling or (let me switch now to...) bodily postures and fingers clacking on the keyboard.

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: How important is technique?

Postby Goofaholix » Thu Feb 04, 2010 12:29 am

retrofuturist wrote:Greetings meindzai,

Well, you raise another interesting distinction... does a "technique" imply a particular posture?


I'd have thought the word "Technique" means a particular methodology packaged and taught as a methodology. So no, some teachers emphasises mindfulness of daily activities over and above any particular posture, and as that's a methodology that's a technique.

There's also the methodology of just sitting, so just a posture nothing else, and as that's a methodology that's a technique.

I wouldn't consider Satipatthana as a technique, though we have the Mahasi technique which is often called Satipatthana, that's a technique.
"Proper effort is not the effort to make something particular happen. It is the effort to be aware and awake each moment." - Ajahn Chah
"When we see beyond self, we no longer cling to happiness. When we stop clinging, we can begin to be happy." - Ajahn Chah
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Re: How important is technique?

Postby retrofuturist » Thu Feb 04, 2010 12:40 am

Greetings Goofaholix,

Goofaholix wrote:I'd have thought the word "Technique" means a particular methodology packaged and taught as a methodology.......

I wouldn't consider Satipatthana as a technique, though we have the Mahasi technique which is often called Satipatthana, that's a technique.

By that definition though, doesn't the fact that it was packaged as such in the Satipatthana Sutta by the Buddha qualify it as a technique?

I'm not trying to be tricky... I'm just trying to work out what we're actually talking about here.

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: How important is technique?

Postby Goofaholix » Thu Feb 04, 2010 1:03 am

retrofuturist wrote:By that definition though, doesn't the fact that it was packaged as such in the Satipatthana Sutta by the Buddha qualify it as a technique?

I'm not trying to be tricky... I'm just trying to work out what we're actually talking about here.


I'd agree with Mendzai, it doesn't really read like a technique.

I think there are several techniques in there, and the general principles upon which techniques can be developed.
"Proper effort is not the effort to make something particular happen. It is the effort to be aware and awake each moment." - Ajahn Chah
"When we see beyond self, we no longer cling to happiness. When we stop clinging, we can begin to be happy." - Ajahn Chah
"Know and watch your heart. It’s pure but emotions come to colour it." — Ajahn Chah
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Re: How important is technique?

Postby appicchato » Thu Feb 04, 2010 1:17 am

retrofuturist wrote:
Goofaholix wrote:I'd have thought the word "Technique" means a particular methodology packaged and taught as a methodology.......

I wouldn't consider Satipatthana as a technique, though we have the Mahasi technique which is often called Satipatthana, that's a technique.


By that definition though, doesn't the fact that it was packaged as such in the Satipatthana Sutta by the Buddha qualify it as a technique?

From Merriam-Webster (one of the best)...

1 : the manner in which technical details are treated (as by a writer) or basic physical movements are used (as by a dancer); also : ability to treat such details or use such movements <good piano technique>
2 a : a body of technical methods (as in a craft or in scientific research) b : a method of accomplishing a desired aim

I'd say 2b fills the bill...and thus, pretty important...
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Re: How important is technique?

Postby jcsuperstar » Thu Feb 04, 2010 6:59 am

very important, though i have to add one caveat; the only technique that matters is the one that works for you.
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Re: How important is technique?

Postby Bhikkhu Pesala » Thu Feb 04, 2010 8:20 am

Technique is important. The Buddha taught different meditation objects to suit different individuals. There are examples like that of Culapanthaka who could make no progress until given the right meditation object.

The Satipatthāna Sutta includes many different meditation techniques, including mindfulness of respiration, contemplation of the four elements, contemplation of the 32 body parts, and cemetery contemplations on dead bodies. It is not intended that we should practise all of these methods. The discourse was taught to a large assembly of monks and lay disciples, so it is a comprehensive discourse.

The introduction begins:
Ekāyano ayaṃ, bhikkhave, maggo sattānaṃ visuddhiyā, sokaparidevānaṃ samatikkamāya, dukkhadomanassānaṃ atthaṅgamāya, ñāyassa adhigamāya, nibbānassa sacchikiriyāya, yadidaṃ cattāro satipaṭṭhānā.

This is the only way, monks, for the purification of beings, for the transcendence of grief and lamentation, for the extinction of pain and sorrow, for attaining the right method, for the realisation of nibbāna, that is to say, the four foundations of mindfulness.

By "the only way" (ekāyano maggo) or "the direct way" one should understand that there is no way other than the Noble Eightfold Path, or that there is no way to attain the goal without firmly establishing mindfulness of the body, feelings, thoughts, and mental states through being ardent (ātāpī), clearly comprehending (sampajāno) and mindful (satimā).

Attaining the right method (ñāyassa adhigamāya) can be compared to acquiring the skill to keep the mind in perfect balance, like learning to ride a bike. You keep wobbling this way and that until you learn the right way to stay on and keep pedalling.
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Re: How important is technique?

Postby retrofuturist » Thu Feb 04, 2010 8:30 am

Greetings bhante,

Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:The Satipatthāna Sutta includes many different meditation techniques, including mindfulness of respiration, contemplation of the four elements, contemplation of the 32 body parts, and cemetery contemplations on dead bodies. It is not intended that we should practise all of these methods.


I find this view difficult to reconcile with the opening of the sutta.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu's translation wrote:The Blessed One said this: "This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow & lamentation, for the disappearance of pain & distress, for the attainment of the right method, & for the realization of Unbinding — in other words, the four frames of reference. Which four?

"There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings... mind... mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world.


Nyanasatta Thera's translation wrote:This is the only way, monks, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana, namely, the four foundations of mindfulness. What are the four?

Herein (in this teaching) a monk lives contemplating the body in the body,1 ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating feelings in feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness,2 ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief.


Soma's translation wrote:Then the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus as follows: "This is the only way, O bhikkhus, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana, namely, the Four Arousings of Mindfulness."

"What are the four?

"Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu lives contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending (it) and mindful (of it), having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating the feelings in the feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending (them) and mindful (of them), having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness, ardent, clearly comprehending (it) and mindful (of it), having overcome in this world covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects, ardent, clearly comprehending (them) and mindful (of them), having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief."


... or for that matter, the conclusion of the sutta.

The "he" in these translations seems to practice all four.

soma wrote:"O bhikkhus, should any person maintain the Four Arousings of Mindfulness in this manner for seven years...

Nyanasatta wrote:Verily, monks, whosoever practices these four foundations of mindfulness in this manner for seven years...

Thanissaro wrote:"Now, if anyone would develop these four frames of reference in this way for seven years...


Perhaps there's some grammatical nuance that was lost in translation?

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: How important is technique?

Postby Sanghamitta » Thu Feb 04, 2010 8:40 am

jcsuperstar wrote:very important, though i have to add one caveat; the only technique that matters is the one that works for you.


My experience was that I talked these things through with an experienced Bhikkhu who made some very useful suggestions based on what I told him about my temprament etc. I put those suggestions into action in a wobbly way. Later I wanted to add to my practise and spoke to another experienced Ajahn, a female one, who made other excellent suggestions. My own belief is that if you can find an experienced member of the Sangha, experienced that is in guiding others as well as their own practise, it can save some trial and error. Not that we should elevate them to guru status , but there is a tremendous depth of experience in the Sangha.
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Re: How important is technique?

Postby mikenz66 » Thu Feb 04, 2010 8:42 am

retrofuturist wrote:The "he" in these translations seems to practice all four.

Perhaps, but it doesn't read to me like "he" has to practise every single technique. The "Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu..." sound like alternatives to me... That's certainly how the commentarial literature and all modern teachers I've paid any attention to interpret it, as Sanghamitta says...

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Re: How important is technique?

Postby retrofuturist » Thu Feb 04, 2010 8:44 am

Greetings Mike,

How then do the commentaries explain those closing sections? The translations look pretty clear cut to me.

To clarify, I'm not saying that everyone must practice all these contemplations... I'm putting forward an argument that the Buddha never encouraged us to close ourselves off to developing all the satipatthanas through adherence to some modern 'technique' developed millennia after his parinibbana.

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: How important is technique?

Postby Bhikkhu Pesala » Thu Feb 04, 2010 8:47 am

retrofuturist wrote:I find this view difficult to reconcile with the opening of the sutta.

The first section on body contemplation includes different meditation objects to suit different temperaments. We can select one that suits us to establish mindfulness on the body. The U Ba Khin method uses mindfulness of respiration as the foundation, the Mahāsī method uses contemplation of the four elements. A person of lustful temperament could contemplate the 32 body parts or different kinds of corpses. One need not practise them all.

However, we do also need to develop mindfulness of feelings, thoughts (consciousness), and mental objects, using body contemplation as the first step.

If one were to limit oneself to only contemplation of the body and contemplation of feelings — not paying any attention to consciousness and mental states, the method would be incomplete and therefore ineffective.
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Re: How important is technique?

Postby mikenz66 » Thu Feb 04, 2010 9:01 am

retrofuturist wrote:How then do the commentaries explain those closing sections? The translations look pretty clear cut to me.

Yes, I think we agree that, as Bhikku Pesala says, it would include the four areas, but not necessarily every possible detail.
retrofuturist wrote:To clarify, I'm not saying that everyone must practice all these contemplations... I'm putting forward an argument that the Buddha never encouraged us to close ourselves off to developing all the satipatthanas through adherence to some modern 'technique' developed millennia after his parinibbana.

I don't think the commentary to the sutta is from millennia after parinibbana...

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