After reading back through this thread, it becomes obvious (to me at least) that probably more than one person is under a mistaken view of the focus of the original premise for the thread and therefore has jumped the tracks into misunderstanding the governing context. By misunderstanding the general context, these readers have fabricated a mistaken view about the responses I've given to their questions and comments.
Take a few statements out of their intended context, mix in conflation of ideas that were never meant to be associated with each other, begin drawing some conclusions based upon this mixture of mischaracterization and mistakenly perceived implication, and what you end up with is confusion about the original message being communicated, not to mention false assertions. Trying to unravel mess this has only lead to further mischaracterization because the original context was never properly understood so that the mischaracterizations could be cleared up.
(Though it is not stated directly in the piece, the original presentation was written as an observation
with the inexperienced practitioner in mind, and especially those who do not have access to a meditation teacher or a traditional sangha in order to obtain clarification about the practice and therefore depend upon books and other media from which to obtain clarification about points of confusion.)
The only way I know how to correct these mistaken views is to return to the original presentation and to get that
understood within its proper context. The point at which misperception and mischaracterization began to set in came shortly after the initial presentation was made. So, eliminating and leaving all that drama out, let those who have questions focus instead on the four initial posts.
If anyone can find passages in those posts that reflect in any way the following two asserted misunderstandings, then please bring them to my attention, quoted in toto
, so they may be reexamined.
1. that "traditional " beliefs are "additional unnecessary hurdles."
2. that the Dhamma is being redefined to fit one's needs
Contrary to the impression that some have conceived, neither the initial presentation nor what has resulted thereafter in this thread is in any way being presented as a diatribe against any
Buddhist tradition. The accusations of such are fallacious, misleading, and mistaken. If one reads the initial four posts and correctly understands what they are reading, they will notice that the only
subject being brought up for consideration is the subject of meditation and some specific descriptions thereof.
Because these descriptions often become imbued with the authority of a tradition
(having been asserted in such books as the Visuddhimagga
for example), they can often be taken to be established truth, therefore influencing the way the practitioner may view the efficacy his practice. Yet when one's own experience to some extent contradicts the veracity of the description being asserted by resources revered by a tradition (as in the specific examples given), it can present a problem to the inexperienced practitioner who has no one to ask about the nature of such contradictory experience. In an effort to address at least this one assertion (and only
this one: that absorption is only
characterized by the shutting down of all the senses), this presentation was offered as an observation
for the reader's further consideration and contemplation.
In order to help with the reexamination of the first four posts, I've extracted several of the more illustrative paragraphs which characterize and address my point. The reader is invited, however, to reread each post in its entirety. These extracts are taken from the first, third, and fourth posts where the main heart of the presentation is made (the second post being personal background material and therefore dispensable in this exercise).
Whenever anyone takes up the study of a subject, they endeavor to obtain the clearest, most inclusive explanations of that subject that they are able to obtain in order to get an accurate and truthful conception of the material at hand. In the case of general subjects like meditation (and Buddhist meditation in particular) it can be somewhat confusing and frustrating to have to sift through differing accounts describing meditation instruction. Especially when one comes across instruction from different sources that are either dissimilar or that contradict one another. For how is someone who is new to the practice able to weed out the truth from the misperceived with regard to what is being stated?
The only answer to this question is: through one's own direct experience. Yet, even that, at times, can become confusing, as things are liable to change (or at least our perception of them is) as their development matures. This is no different with meditation than it is with other subjects which are liable to subjective opinion. For the most part, the path (the Noble Eightfold Path) that the Buddha laid out for others to practice in order to arrive at the same realizations as he had is rather straightforward and unambiguous. At least as far as it goes when dealing with the larger issues of right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness. It's when we get to the area of right concentration, the area dealing with meditation, that things can become a bit confusing if we are not given the correct conceptual maps with which to deal or are unable properly to discern the ones we are given.
One of the most difficult subjects to teach in Buddhist meditation is the practice of absorption (also known as jhana). Not because absorption itself is necessarily difficult to achieve. But because it can be difficult to get a conceptual handle on if one has not been able to connect the experience to something that they have experienced in their past. I contend that virtually everyone has, at one time or another in their life, experienced absorption (at least the first level) whether they were aware of it or not. From this point, as an instructor, it's just a matter finding an experience that the person can relate to in order to communicate to them what absorption "feels like" when they experience it. Once they get the idea, then you have something to work with.
Now, this isn't meant to be an essay about the nuts and bolts of practicing absorption. It is meant to address an issue regarding the perception of instruction and how that perception can be manipulated by the language used in description. The English language can tend to be rather harsh and unforgiving in its written form. Ideas can seem to be set in stone just in the course of composing a description of a phenomenon that is constantly in flux and therefore subject to change, such as the present subject matter of the mind and its relationship to the practice of meditation.
When these descriptions become cauterized by tradition, they can seem to be almost impossible to break through in order to rediscover the actual truth of the matter. In other words, the mind accepts one description as being unalterable truth, and then shuts down to the possibility of any change or alteration of that description which might occur in actuality. What this presentation will endeavor to accomplish is to explore some aspects of the experience of absorption in order to arrive at a more fair (and hopefully more fact-based) conceptual template of this experience.
This isn't meant to be combative or to offer up for debate any of the ideas express here. It's meant to allow others, who might perhaps have had similar experiences to the ones being described, a place to voice the discernment of their experiences and to confirm, correct, or add to the possibilities being explored here.
Traditional descriptions of jhana that one can find in ancient works like the Visuddhimagga or the Vimuttimagga tend to be invested in carrying forth an established line of doctrinal or orthodox practice. Originally designed to preserve the highlights of meditative practice and instruction, they tend to be a little more rigid in their presentation. Whereas more contemporary works like Ajahn Brahmavamso's Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond or Bhante Gunaratana's Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English may take more liberties in their descriptions, they also may become so invested in not offending a traditional outlook of the practice that they seem to end up parroting a lot of what has gone before. (In the interest of full disclosure, I haven't read Bhante G's latest work and so cannot really comment on it per se; although I have read other works by him on this subject, which is what I am relying on as indicative of his outlook on this issue.)
Owing mostly to descriptions like those given by Ajahn Brahm, many practitioners have been lead to think that "true" absorption involves the inability to think, to hear sound, or to be aware of the fleeting nature of the breath itself. Perhaps this impression is so when one is first learning to dive down into absorption from the standpoint of calming the mind into a profound stillness. I don't deny the validity of the perception of any of these experiences at all. Yet, when one's practice becomes more mature, there seem to be two modes of absorption practice which can be seen to contradict one another in how they are described and experienced. The first relates to the initial effort to calm the mind to stillness during the practice of samatha with all that that stillness implies, and the second relates to the contemplation of phenomena in insight (vipassana) practice, with all the activity of the arising of insight that concentration implies.
In understanding this second mode, it might be illustrative to look at an analogous example of how this can be so. When we consider the example of becoming absorbed in reading a book, it seems quite natural to observe, for instance, that the mind can become absorbed in an activity, totally unified on the subject at hand, while still being active itself. The process of reading is itself an active mental event. And yet the mind, when absorbed in a particularly engrossing read, can become quite oblivious to the outer world such that sound may not be noticed even though it is there on the periphery, to take but one example. If you've ever experienced being absorbed in a book then you know what I'm speaking about.
Throughout these processes, I am able to experience inner verbalization while also being able to focus (on the periphery) on the breath itself as it carries the mind into the absorption. The absorption is able to adapt to wherever I wish to avert the mind, be that the object of the breath or a subject like the five aggregates. This has led me to view this process in quite a different manner than the way I did when I initially began to experiment with the jhanas. I understand now why samadhi is often translated as "concentration."
My insistence on there being two modes of absorption practice receives backing from none other than Sayadaw U Pandita, who has described this very same observation in his own words in his book In This Very Life.
What happens when someone reads the discourses about jhana and then compares that with what is described by ancient commentators? Because of the way the language is structured, it can make it seem as though the instruction is either this way or that way, but that it cannot be both. The inflexibility of language itself can get in the way of being able to express the true fluidity of an impermanent experience in flux that is liable to change at any moment. In an effort to define and describe an experience with any accuracy, language and the way it is used can make it seem as though the experience is written in stone, that there are no exceptions.
Yet, when one experiences the continuity of concentration (samadhi) within the context of absorption attainment and makes a slight averting of the mind from an object to a subject, then how is one to describe such an event? Does the absorption break down the moment the mind changes from object to subject? This might depend upon how the event is perceived by the eye of the beholder. If the mind moves from unification on an object to unification on a subject and concentration remains strong, does that signal something that can be called less absorbed? And if so, by what criteria is it being judged?
All I know is that when I meditate anymore, what I'm more likely to pursue than anything else usually involves contemplation on a subject for purposes of obtaining insight. I may start out paying attention to the breath in order to develop jhana, but once I sense concentration having become established and absorbed, my attention switches to a subject for contemplation. My mind still feels unified on the subject of contemplation, and with strong concentration, it becomes easier for insight to arise during this contemplation.
Among the faculties that I notice during these contemplations are a mind that is incredibly clear, unblemished, malleable, workable, and established in mindfulness. It is able to be directed toward any object or subject whatsoever with relative ease. This sets up the condition for insight to arise. While in this state, I can hear sounds (although I may not avert the mind toward them) and not be bothered by them. Thoughts can surface, but be quickly banished if need be. The mind is extremely obedient to whatever direction it is given to execute. This reflects a mind that has let go of "hankering and fretting for the world." Nothing is disturbing this mind from accomplishing its intended tasks, and it is fully in the present moment, ready to be directed this way or that.
Also, it seems fairly obvious from the above quoted passage that insight can indeed be cultivated and developed from within a given level [of] jhana. Is the jhana practitioner able to mentally verbalize such insight? I really don't see why not (although perhaps in many instances, the verbalization may be superfluous, and therefore dispensed with, given the quickness of the mind's ability to pick up on non-verbal realizations as they occur). It is therefore not beyond the realm of reason to contemplate that skilled meditators may be able to accomplish quite a bit more than what seems possible judging by what is written in certain quarters, such as the following excerpt from Ajahn Brahm's book. . .
What I hope readers have come away with from this brief exposition is that the experience of absorption should be approached with an open mind (i.e. a mind that has not been preconditioned by conceptions that may or may not be an accurate description of the state).
"The gift of truth exceeds all other gifts" — Dhammapada, v. 354 Craving XXIV