from Introduction: System of Meditation
Before turning the page to start on Chapter One, I would like to offer an overview of meditation principles that we can refer to as we go. This ‘system of meditation’ was developed originally by my teacher Sangharakshita; we will find it a good framework both for understanding where various practices or approaches fit in and for reflecting on the nature of our own spiritual experiences. Buddhism has a rich tradition of meditation methods. The Buddha himself was credited by the 5th century CE commentator Buddhaghosa with teaching forty of them, most of which, in some form, appear somewhere in this book. Thousands more have been added since his time as the tradition entered many different Asian cultures. The variety of methods may come as a surprise; mainstream Buddhist communities these days generally focus on just one meditation technique. It is certainly normal in Buddhist tradition to introduce newcomers to one single method: this is usually some variant of mindfulness of breathing (anapanasati), and possibly also the development of lovingkindness (Metta Bhavana). A few traditions start with some kind of Just Sitting or mindfulness practice, or chanting. The Buddha himself taught these three key areas of Buddhist practice and individuals have pursued them in various Buddhist traditions. Almost every newcomer to Buddhism will start with these, and probably with the first. This is because when we start off, everyone needs to become 1) more integrated and concentrated, 2) more friendly and loving and 3) more deeply aware. In my own tradition, the Triratna Order, we call these key areas ‘integration’, ‘positive emotion’ and ‘mindfulness’. The first two are similar in that they involve directed effort – we cultivate concentration and develop our capacities to love. But in its basic form the third, mindfulness, is not about cultivating anything; it’s simply being aware of what is happening. Thus 1) and 2) are active meditations, whereas 3) is receptive. The full, extended practice of mindfulness, as outlined in the Satipatthana sutta, does have an active developmental aspect. However the basic mindfulness practice is receptivity and openness to the actuality of all experience, and that is equivalent to the Just Sitting meditation (see Chapter 3).
So here emerge the main principles in our system of meditation. First comes the difference between those practices that actively cultivate particular qualities, and those that receptively ‘take in’ current experiences. Then there is an ordering, a sequence of regular steps: concentration, positive emotion and mindfulness are basics everyone needs to have established before attempting in any depth the more advanced stages of meditation, which are concerned with insight or wisdom. It may certainly happen sometimes that we do experience levels of awareness or insight that seem very much beyond our current stage of realisation, but these experiences are usually temporary. Soon we have to drop back and continue putting down roots in the here and now:
First, you help your mind to become concentrated and unified, that is you develop integration. This makes it easier to develop, secondly, love, confidence and kindness: in other words, positive emotion.
The coming chapters are concerned with the details of these processes. Chapters One and Two in particular, and most chapters up to and including Chapter Six, focus on the stages of Integration and Positive Emotion. Mindfulness is covered in Chapters Three and Four. Chapters Seven, Eight, Nine and Ten introduce the stages of meditation that are concerned with insight into the real nature of existence – and the compassion that is inseparable from that insight.
Insight meditation is the other main factor in our system. Though it is something very different from integration or positive emotion, insight can be sustained only once our work in those stages has established a positive, integrated state of mind known also as dhyana. Dhyana is fresh, open, clear and concentrated at a level that makes it possible to explore in depth the nature of our existence and see through our over literal assumptions and views. Without at least the beginnings of dhyana, our insight contemplations are likely to be unclear and unfocused; they will not result in any actual insight.
The realm of practice aimed at cultivating dhyana, equivalent to the stages of integration and positive emotion, is generally known as shamatha or ‘calming’ meditation. The realm of insight meditation is known as vipashyana, which means ‘seeing.’
Practiced within a state of well established shamatha, vipashyana methods eventually produce results: we really do see through our views and assumptions. A moment of true seeing is radical and something of a shock; it can set off a process that culminates in the collapse of everything we previously took for granted. It is the most crucial transition of anyone’s spiritual life. We therefore call it the stage of spiritual death, which is not putting it too strongly; like death, real insight is always unexpected, always resisted, always life changing. ‘Death’ also suggests the possibility of a renaissance, a rebirth into a new kind of existence. Until our old ways finally die off, nothing new can come about.
Finally, really seeing into the truth makes it easy to abandon delusion, to let it go and let go into the positive state of insight. Here we enter into the area of insight meditation concerned not so much with breakthroughs and realisations but with the process of becoming fully awakened, where the practitioner starts to be transformed in a permanent way. This phase of the system of meditation is termed spiritual rebirth.
Each of the four cumulative stages is associated with methods that typically cultivate it, though with experience comes the ability to cultivate any phase with any practice. Most methods can be approached from either a shamatha or a vipashyana angle, or both. All the practices will be explored in some depth as the book progresses.
1) Integration is associated with concentration meditation, such as mindfulness of breathing.
2) Positive emotion comes about through loving kindness (Metta Bhavana) meditation and the family of practices Metta Bhavana comes from, i.e. the Four Brahmaviharas.
3) Spiritual death is arrived at through vipashyana meditations such as the Contemplation of Conditionality or the Six Element practice.
4) Spiritual rebirth is especially associated with sadhana (visualisation) meditation. As will be seen in Chapter Nine, sadhana is often a complex of practices within practices, an aspect of which is an active cultivation of the Buddha’s qualities. Hence this phase of the system of meditation, like the three foregoing ones, can be associated with the Active approach. However since sadhana also especially involves receptivity to the living qualities of the Buddha, it also links very naturally to the Receptive approach.
5) Mindfulness has the unique place in our system of making sure the meditator does not lose his or her grounding in tangible, felt experience through over emphasising the active approach. Mindfulness refers to many different kinds of practice, but in terms of meditation it is especially associated with Just Sitting. More will be said in Chapter Three, but the essence of this approach is to stop doing things and come into relationship with immediate experience. The effect on the practice is refreshment and renewal at every level.