Sunday, October 16, 2011

Two Strands in Meditation Practice

By concentrating on a single object, samatha meditation aims at developing calmness, serenity and tranquillity. Other forms, usually called vipassanâ meditation, aim at gaining insight into the nature of existence. All of these developments result from a balanced meditation practice, since tranquil concentration is indispensable to the penetrative understanding of “the impermanency, unsatisfactoriness and impersonality of all material and mental phenomena of existence” (by Ven. Nyanatiloka).

The mental states (jhânas) which arise from samatha meditation offer a joyful path to the meditator. The initial technique will involve mindfulness of breathing (anapanasati) which builds greater calm and serenity. Then we move to cultivating the brahmaviharas (sublime abiding) of loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity using a series of inter-related techniques which are also part of the samatha grouping.

Seen as uniquely Buddhist, vipassanâ gives one the ability, through one’s own efforts, to see that all things are impermanent (anicca), basically unsatisfactory (dukkha) and not-Self (anatta). This insight means we no longer need to rely on others or scriptures, but know for ourselves. Two techniques will be explored. The first is clearly seeing the arising and ceasing of feelings through bodily observation, and the other is bringing the same clarity and mindfulness to all phenomena of which we become aware.

The Pali Canon notes “when one practices samatha followed by vipassanâ, the path arises”. This means that it is valuable to work with both approaches, as the Buddha’s own example shows.

Finally, one should not let meditation work end on the cushion. The benefits of the practice should flow into our lives and relationships. Our actions will become more informed by kindness, respect and compassion, and our daily activities will become more balanced and appropriate to the reality of our situation.