The Vipassana Retreat
3. The Framework for the Practice
In the first teaching, known as the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta), the Buddha presented his core teaching: The Four Noble Truths*, which includes the Eight-Fold Practice Path that highlights the key meditation skill of sati or mindfulness. Later the Buddha expands on the practice of being mindful, in a teaching that consists of a set of instructions with clear directions called the Satipatthana Sutta, or the discourse on ‘The Four Establishments of Mindfulness’.
(1) bodily phenomena (2) feelings and sensations (3) mind states and/or consciousness, and (4) mind qualities or mental phenomena.
3. CONTEMPLATION OF THE MIND (Cittanupassana)
There can be many ways to the same destination. The particular approach in this retreat follows the lineage of the late Mahasi Sayadaw of Myanmar. The method is that of 'bare insight', where, by direct observation, one's own bodily and mental processes are seen with increasing clarity, in the insight knowledges as inconstancy, distress and not-self.
The 'bare insight' meditator begins by tuning into the air element (vayo-dhatu) manifesting as vibration or movement in the abdomen in sitting and as movement in the steps taken in walking. This practice is taken from the Four Material Elements meditation in the body contemplation section. It focuses primarily on the air element and is combined with clear knowing of daily activities. The other main sections of the Satipatthana Sutta, feelings, mind states and mental phenomena are worked with as secondary objects as they occur.
The Two Types of Meditation
For clarity’s sake, one needs to be familiar with the two types of meditation techniques: Serenity Meditation (samatha), which is concentration based on fixing on a single object in order to attain one-pointedness, inducing a calm state; and the Insight Meditation (vipassana), which is an awareness practice where one experientially investigates one’s own mind/body processes. These two types of meditation can be combined, or Vipassana, as 'pure’ or ‘bare’ insight, can be done by itself.
Three Types of Concentration
As it is necessary for the meditator to be familiar with the two types of meditation and their outcomes, it is also useful to understand the three types of concentration in meditation. They are: one-pointedness (appana), which is a meditative absorption or Jhana; access or threshold concentration (upacara); and momentary concentration (khanika). As one-pointedness or the Jhana type is largely confined to serenity meditation (samatha), it is enough here to explain the other two types of concentration found in the ‘bare’ Vipassana meditation approach.
So we are following here the path of the dry or bare Vipassana practitioner, without Jhanas, whose knowledge is not from learning, reading or listening to talks, but from one’s own direct experience. By experientially knowing the characteristics of the mind and body with insight into their impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and insubstantiality, the meditator is freed by insight alone.
The Process of Purifying the Mind
The Five or Eight Precepts, as well as the 227 training rules of the monk, are undertaken by the meditator to restrain the mind and develop morality. But precepts and rules by themselves do not purify the mind, especially as there is a tendency to ritualise them rather than to actualize them. While they can be helpful in restraining one’s behaviour, being conceptual they are not experientially transforming of themselves.
Concentration (samadhi) by itself merely suppresses the mental impurities temporarily as it works only on the manifest level of the mind. It does not clear the dormant, or latent material of the mind, that is, the inherent tendencies of the mind.
Psychotherapy before Meditation?
In the Western meditation culture, there is an ongoing debate on whether one needs to do psychotherapy before meditation. This is because often meditators, especially Vipassana meditators, experience mental problems and difficulties as they meditate. Well, leaving aside whether a person comes to the practice with a pre-existing mental problem or not, from a Buddhist perspective it is the mental impurities of greed, hatred and delusion (kilesas) that meditators are essentially experiencing. These mental impurities are not to be confused with clinical conditions such as psychosis, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorders. For most people, the negative emotions as well as the latent tendencies hidden in the mind – however strong and entrenched they may be - are workable in the long run through Vipassana meditation.
Again for most people, at least initially, it is an essential part of the Vipassana experience that one goes through the purification process that the Buddha refers to in the Satipatthana Sutta. One has to allow for a ventilation of the deep mental accumulation as one meditates so that the dormant impurities of anger, lust, and delusion are released - that is, cleansed.
The attitude of the meditator, or the way he or she relates to the meditation experience, is critical in the practice. It is vital that one allows any negative material to surface, and doesn’t react or play back into it. In this way, a non-reactive awareness develops that allows for a natural purging and cleansing of the mind.
Referring back to the text we have been following, the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha gave a specific time frame for attainment in this practice: from 7 years to 7 days. For a beginner, a 10-day retreat is hardly enough time to complete the practice, but by working sincerely during this retreat you can establish the basis for an ongoing practice, which potentially can lead to the ultimate liberation and the absolute peace of Nirvana.
5 Aggregates of Grasping:
7 Factors of Awakening:
6 Internal and 6 External Sense-Spheres:
* 4 Noble Truths: