BuddhaNet's magazine article

Experiments in Buddhist Meditation, by Shanta Ratnayaka

1. Diversity and History

Throughout history, there have been numerous traditions of meditation and all of them are, in one-way or another, attractive to people of differing dispositions. Yoga, Kundalini, Transcendental Meditation, Sufi, Zen, Samatha, Vipassana, and Satipatthana are some examples. These traditions have continued generation after generation without falling out of practice because they all bring about benefits to people. While they are recognised as meditation, all of them may not produce the same benefits, and they do not claim to do so either. But they yield good results; in doing so, they attract many serious minded people around the world. Of these meditations, Yoga, Kundalini, and Transcendental Meditation have come from Hinduism. Sufi is from Islam, and the rest of them have been introduced by Buddhism.

The other religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Jainism have their variations of meditation as well. Yet, they are not as widely practice d as the one we mentioned above. All these examples show that the practice of meditation is not limited to one or two religions. Rather, it is a common aspect of many religious traditions. Even some philosophies like the Vedanta system emphasise meditation in their systems. The scope of the present study, however, is limited to Buddhist meditation.

The history of meditation reaches beyond the known history of mankind. According to archaeologists, a figure of a yogi found in the Indus Valley Civilisation indicates that yoga practice could have existed in the first Indian civilisation itself. Ever since yoga and other forms of meditation have been essential practices in Hinduism. The Buddha’s life story gives detailed accounts on the advanced yogis from whom Siddhartha Gautama learned yoga practices. Some of these pre-Buddhistic teachers had achieved eight dhyaanas as well as the magical skills based on their trance states. Under these teachers, Siddhartha mastered the teachings of meditation within a short period of time. He was even offered teaching positions by these masters, but Siddhartha refused their offers and continued searching for more by experimenting further with the techniques of meditation. Siddhartha’s achievement which made him a Buddha was the result of these experiments. Somewhat like the Buddhists, who has the Buddha to lead them in practice, the Sufis of Islam claim that their meditation started right from the beginning of their religion as the Prophet Mohammed himself practised it.

Obviously, the history of each religion is a long one, as well as the history of meditation within each religion. The Buddha taught his disciples and these disciples taught theirs. From master to master there have been individual approaches and interpretations to the original practices. When Buddhism was received by Chinese, Japanese, Tibetans, and Southeast Asians, they added their own methods and interpretations. Japanese Zen and Tibetan Tantra are good examples of such expanded versions of Buddhist meditation. Again the scope of the present study does not allow us to discuss the long history of Buddhist meditation. Here we will be limited to a few experiments and comments which can be more useful to our lives today than its historical events and developments.

We have already noted that before achieving the Buddhahood Siddharta Gautama developed dhyaanas as well as the supranormal skills based on them. This type of meditation is known as samatha because by calming down one’s thoughts and by cultivating the power of concentration one’s mind reaches the states of dhyaana. Thus, samatha meditation came from the pre-Buddhistic practices. What actually led Siddhartha to the Buddhahood was his own experimentation in meditation. This new meditation is known as Vipassana which means insight or penetration into reality. Vipassana is Pali term and its Sanskrit term is vidarshana . It is through vipassana that one can attain Nirvana, the Absolute or the Goal of Buddhism. Even the one who has mastered samatha does not attain Nirvana; he has to develop Vipassana in order to see Nirvana. An essential step of vipassana is satipatthana (i.e. mindfulness or awareness). Through satipatthana the meditator becomes aware of the present moment of life, each and every movement of his or her physical and mental existence. That kind of awareness is essential to have penetrating insight into the physical and mental phenomena which encompasses the whole world.

2. Experiments

Recently the present writer had done several experiments with Professor James W. Boyd at Colorado State University. At one point I suggested to Dr. Boyd that he should meditate on the feelings. Here what I mean by feelings is necessarily gross feelings like anger or anxiety, but any mental or physical feeling like pleasure or pain. The following was my instruction:

Being aware of your feelings is traditionally know as vedanaanupassana satipatthana. When you eat ice cream you enjoy the taste of it. That is rasa vedana. Rather than letting your thoughts wander about something else or somewhere else, keep your thoughts on the action of eating ice cream and the taste of it. Being aware of the act of eating ice cream belongs to the kaayaanupassana satipatthana,i.e. awareness of bodily movements. Being aware of the taste of ice cream belongs to the vedanaanupassana satipatthana, i.e. awareness of feelings. To reiterate, eating ice cream, it is done with satipa.t.thaana, can bring the highest realisation of reality. While eating ice cream, one can step beyond the every day pattern of existence. By the way, one does not have to sit cross-legged in a lotus position to eat ice cream. Let us try it.

Dr Boyd agreed. After doing satipatthana meditation on eating ice cream he sat at his computer and recorded his experience. His computer gives this report:

I purposely selected one of my favourite flavours of ice cream, double dip, I was quickly aware of my tongue, the taste of cold ice cream on it. I tried to be observant of my response to the taste, and eventually saw that just as I swallowed there was a desire for more. As I tried to continue that awareness of attachment to the taste, on about three occasions I became aware that as I paid attention to the desire, it was neutralised somewhat. I asked myself at those moments if I craved another bite; there was no sense of craving. Habitual inattention brought me in and out of this awareness, however, even with something so appealing as ice cream.

Dr Boyd, by using his favourite ice cream, is practising satipaltlthana meditation. I talked to him about Buddhist philosophy using the same practical experience. One philosophical point was brought into our conversation in analysing Dr Boyd’s remark, I tried to be observant. In satipatthana meditation, the meditator realises that there is no dichotomy between I and the observant . The observant and I are one. When the meditation goes deeper and deeper, the meditator sees that there is no dichotomy between the feeling and the observant. Feeling itself assumes to be me or the observant . When the process of feeling is seen clearly with satipatthana, the feeler disappears. In absence of the feeler, observant, or ego, the meditator becomes in touch with the flux of life or the stream of existence. Religiously speaking this is not a simple achievement. If one has gone this far in meditation, that person will always have the right attitude towards life and world altogether.

In the above-mentioned computer report Dr Boyd has said, I asked myself at those moments if I craved another bite; there was no sense of craving . That was the second philosophical point he learned from this particular meditation. Using satipatthana while eating ice cream, he himself observed how his craving for ice cream faded away. He overcame his craving, at least his craving for ice cream. On the other hand, he does not hate ice cream, so he maintains the right view on eating ice cream.

After he had this meditational experience, Dr Boyd claim that his teaching ability improved considerably. Before the meditation he taught Buddhism only from books, but now after meditation he teaches Buddhism from his own experience. Before he was able to discuss Buddhist philosophy from his book knowledge but now he teaches it with personal understanding. When satipatthana is applied to other fields of teaching besides Buddhism, he finds it to be very effective.

Another experiment I have done with Dr Boyd is walking meditation. I asked him to be aware of his feet when he walked. Slowly I directed him to be attentive to the raising of the feet from the ground, the moving of the feet over the ground, and to placing them on the ground. In this exercise he had to pay continuous attention to walking; the movement of his feet. After this practice Dr Boyd has recorded his experience in the computer thus:

I quickly realised that I had to slow down and, at first, I became aware of the bottom of my feet as I placed them on the asphalt. Then I eventually became aware of the roll of my feet in an arching movement. As I became aware of my walking, the sense of sequence was there, and also a sense of the press of my feet against the floor and the lightness in lifting them. Later there was a strong awareness of motion, and heaviness.

Normally one does not notice any of these details in walking although everyone walks daily. Only when one becomes mindful one sees the minute details of one’s walking. Similarly in being fully attentive, one can take note of all the movements taking place in daily living.

A step beyond the physical movements is thought. The meditator begins to see his or her thoughts. Just like he or she recognised the movements of the feet, he or she begins to recognise the rising, continuing, and the fall of each thought. Thus, characteristics like impermanence of the physical and mental entities become revealed to the meditator. Seeing these characteristics is vipassana. This way satipatthana leads to vipasana. The progress of vipassana meditation depends on satipatthana meditation. And one’s progress towards enlightenment depends on vipassana meditation.

Although satipatthana, vipassana, or Zen can be done in walking or any other position, people usually think that a sitting posture is the best position for a meditator. Anyone’s mental picture of a meditator is that of the lotus posture. Several reasons account for the popularity of the lotus posture. The cultural and historical background in India is a major one. It is a habit of Indians to sit in lotus posture. The Satipatthana Sutta [1] itself makes special reference to it as a way of getting ready to do certain meditations like the meditation on breath (anapana sati). Obviously, the meditator’s lungs remain fully expanded and spinal cord stays straight when one sits in lotus posture. This helps lungs and brain to function freely. Besides, it is a stable and settled position for the meditator. It is not unusual for a person to fall asleep when the mind becomes calmer and calmer. If it happens the meditator will not get injured, because he or she is steady in his or her sitting position itself. We can imagine what could happen if one falls asleep during the walking meditation. Therefore sitting posture, especially the lotus posture, is a firm and balanced physical position for the meditator.

3. Psychology

We have been referring to the ancient scriptural teachings and traditional practices. Therefore, at this point of our study we must find out what modern researchers have done in the field of meditation. First of all modern researchers have recognised that the meditator’s brain functions are distinct from that of the non-meditator. In addition it has been discovered that the meditator’s brain is not subjected to habituation process whereas all the others live as victims of habituation of their brains. See the following two experiments.

Electroencephalographic Analysis of Meditation

In 1963 a fascinating and unique report on Zen meditation was presented by Dr Akira Kasamatsu and Dr Tomio Hirai of the Department of Neuro-Psychiatry, Tokyo University. It contained the results of a ten-year study of the brain wave or electroencephalographic (EEG) tracing of Zen masters.

The EEG tracing revealed that about 90 seconds after an accomplished Zen practitioner begins meditation, a rhythmic slowing in the brain wave pattern occurs known as alpha waves. This slowing occurs with eyes open and progresses with meditation, and after 30 minutes one finds rhythmic alpha waves of seven or eight per second. This effect persists for some minutes after meditation. What is most significant is that this EEG pattern is notably different from those of sleep, normal walking consciousness, and hypnotic trance and is unusual in persons who have not made considerable progress in meditation. In other words, it suggests an unusual mental state; though from the subjective reports of the practitioners, it does not appear to be a unique or highly unusual conscious experience. It was also found that a Zen master’s evaluation of the amount of progress another practitioner had made correlated directly with the latter’s EEG changes.

Another finding of the same study concerned what are called alpha blocking and habituation. To understand these phenomena let us imagine that a person who is reading quietly is suddenly interrupted by a loud noise. If the same sound is then repeated with a few seconds later his attention will again be diverted, only not as strongly nor for as long a time. If the sound is then repeated at regular intervals, the person will continue reading and become oblivious to the sound. A normal subject with closed eyes produces alpha waves on an EEG tracing. An auditory stimulation, such as a loud noise normally obliterates alpha waves for seven seconds or more; this is termed alpha blocking. In a Zen master the alpha blocking produced by the first noise lasts only two seconds. If the noise is repeated at 15 second intervals, we find that in the normal subject there is virtually no alpha blocking remaining by the fifth successive noise. This diminution of alpha blocking is termed habituation and persists in normal subjects for as long as the noise continues at regular and frequent intervals. In the Zen master, however, no habituation is seen. His alpha blocking lasts two seconds with the first sound, two seconds with the fifth sound, and two seconds with the twentieth sound. This implies that the Zen master has a greater awareness of his environment as the paradoxical result of meditative concentration. One master described such a state of mind as that of noticing every person he sees on the street but of not looking back with emotional lingering. [2]

EEG tracing is only one example found in modern research. Psychology plays a large role in the modern world and meditation is essentially a psychological affair. Therefore, it is worthwhile for us to compare and contrast briefly the modern psychology with the Buddhist psychology. The Buddha teaches that the world is operated by mind (cittena neeyati l“k“), [3] pleasure and pain, happiness and sorrow, progression and regression, in brief the whole human civilisation is a product of thought. An individual’s future and the future of all mankind depends on our power of thinking. The role of consciousness is nicely stated thus in Buddhist Meditation and Depth Psychology:

If the basis of Christianity is God, the basis of Buddhism is mind. From the Buddhist viewpoint, mind or consciousness is the core of our existence. Pleasure and pain, good and evil, time and space, life and death have no meaning to us apart from our awareness of them or thoughts about them. Whether God exists or does not exist, whether existence is primarily spiritual or primarily material, whether we live for a few decades or live forever – all these matters are, in the Buddhist view, secondary to the one empirical fact of which we do have certainty; that is the existence of conscious experience as it proceeds through the course of daily living. Therefore, Buddhism focuses on the mind; for happiness and sorrow, pleasure and pain are psychological experiences. [5]

In this comparative remark we represent Western psychologists. While Buddhist psychology, including meditational application of it, downgrades methodology, Western psychology gives the highest possible place to it. For instance, John Marasca, a professor at Ohio State University reports at the American Psychological Association Convention [6] that a telephone survey of 1,282 women and 749 men was the chosen method for obtaining data regarding men and women. In the field of meditation such a method is not considered valid or reliable enough to reach conclusions regarding human consciousness. Relying on the telephone conversations with that many men and women, psychologists have decided that women suffer more distress than men. Accordingly, women experience symptoms of distress such as sadness, anger, anxiety, malaise, and physical aches 30% more often than men. The comparison of men and women further shows that women experience sadness and anger 29% more often than men, anxiety 30% more, malaise 38% more and physical aches 36% more than men.

These numbers are very valid statistically. For instance, at working places precautions can be taken according to the number of men and women employed so that the negative outcomes of distress can be avoided. Pharmaceutical companies can focus more on female clients to sell their drugs prescribed for distress. The results of such research can be used for various practical purposes like these. From this we can learn the methods of Western psychological research as well as the applications of them. The pattern here has been questioning a certain number of people, analysing their answers, arriving at conclusions, and working according to those conclusions. In this method of research and its application some essential human questions have been put aside. Although the conclusions are made on numbers lie 30% and 38% (No doubt these numbers are attractive to the readers) the fact remains that feeling of sadness or anger really takes place in individuals. The cure of them also can be achieved by individuals but not by large number of men or women collectively. Although more than enough such psychological research is being done, such research is not helping enough individuals to eliminate sadness, anger, anxiety or malaise.

Besides, modern psychologists recognise mental qualities like anger and anxiety as normal human qualities. When these mental dispositions grow into a state of insanity the patient will be treated and cared for, otherwise, they are accepted as normal human conditions. Because of this influence very responsible people and social leaders argue for justifiable anger and even just wars . On the other hand meditation is applied on an individual basis and it regulates mental dispositions.

4. Psychotherapy

Cognitive therapy has become a major outcome of psychology today. This is not surprising at all because a greater part of life is mental; even the physical body is operated by the mind. Mental health should be maintained in order to live a happy life. Medication is for mental health and it can be use for psychological therapy as well. Buddhism in Psychology presents several case studies in which meditation has helped the patient to overcome mental problems. Awareness of feeling (vedanaanupassana) is the meditation applied in the following case. As shown previously, this medication is taught in the Satipatthana Sutta. When one is aware of the feelings that exist on the surface of one’s mind, gradually the hidden feelings begin to be revealed by themselves. In using the particular meditation, awareness of feeling, one can take one’s feelings under control and manage them in a productive way. See the following case study.

During a group therapy session, a 22-year-old married woman who suffered from what had been diagnosed as an endogenous depression expressed despair at her inability to feel anything anymore , relating a total lack of emotion. The only feeling she could identify was one of gloom and depression. She was asked to begin to get in touch with her feelings, becoming more aware of, and carefully and accurately labelling any emotion she experienced as she sat quietly watching her breathing or even during her normal daily activities.

Over the next few weeks she found herself increasingly naming anger as her predominant emotion, and it became possible to identify the source of that anger in her marital relationship. She then gradually became aware that she had been misinterpreting her emotions over many months, mistakingly believing that she had been experiencing depression whereas strong elements of anger, hostility, self-abasement, and disappointment had also been present. This recognition of the feelings she had been inaccurately labelling depression freed her to identify other feelings as well. Soon she was back in touch with the full spectrum of human emotions. Her depression disappeared and was replaced by a greatly improved self-image and understanding of her feelings. [7]

We have already noted that from the modern psychological viewpoint anger, anxiety, and such other emotions are normal human qualities. Buddhism differs in this case from modern psychology. Buddhism treats anger, desire, lust, delusion, jealousy, and many such human qualities as abnormal. Because one is not yet enlightened one lives with these abnormalities. Thus there is a vast gap between what it means to be a normal human being in Buddhist psychology and that in modern psychology. What is normal to one is abnormal to the other and vice versa. It is interesting to see how this difference is understood (rather misunderstood) and expressed by the Western researcher. For instance, one states: “Thus while we in the West see disillusionment in a negative light, connoting disappointment, or a bitter and cynical attitude to life for Buddhism is of central value, and it is what the Buddhist seeks”. [8]

5. More on Meditation

Even a normal person needs meditational therapy in order to make progress towards enlightenment. If one is satisfied with the usual and habitual worldly life one might not make any attempt to walk a religious path or experiment with meditation. As one should notice, higher benefit of meditation is received by the normal and sane persons. These people are not trying to correct some abnormal mental states, rather they are trying through meditation to achieve the highest spiritual goals possible for mankind. Therefore, now we must go back to the Satipatthana Sutta for further instructions. In addition to the two meditations, kayanuppassana and vedanauppassana, the same Sutta teaches two more meditations. Being aware of thoughts or mind itself is cittanupassana. Similarly, being aware of certain particularities such as attachment, hate, love or compassion is dhammanupassana.

If we look at the four Satipatthanas – body, feeling, mind, and dharmas, (Kayaanupassana, vedananupassana, cittanupasana, dhammaanupassana), they become subtler and subtler gradually. Compared to feeling, body is gross. Compared to mind, feeling is. And compared to the dharmas, mind is gross. When body is no longer moving, it is easy to concentrate on feeling, when body and feeling are settled down it is easy to concentrate on mind. And when body, feeling, and mind are settled down it is each to concentrate on dharmas. To be mindful of mind or dharmas certain concentration is needed. Clearly sitting down quietly helps one’s mind to see itself and to see the content of one’s mind. Seeing one’s mind is a very essential step in the process of meditation. This is the doctrinal reason for the sitting position to become so attractive to the meditator.

Nevertheless, we should not go to an extreme and cling to a sitting position or lotus posture as if it is indispensable to meditation. Nirvana can be realised in any posture. To give a simple example by referring to a meditation previously discussed, I should say that one does not have to sit cross legged in order to eat ice cream! Not only the mindfulness of body, but that of feeling, mind, and dharmas, is also possible in other postures like sleeping, standing, and walking. The following examples should be closely examined to decide whether the sitting posture or, for that matter, any fixed posture is needed to succeed in meditation.

The Commentary to Theri Gatha, Paramattha Dipani, records that Terika attained enlightenment while watching the leaves that she was cooking in a pan in her kitchen [9]. When this happened she was a lay woman with all her household affairs. According to the Commentary, one day as Patacara was pouring out water to wash her feet she watched how the water ran on the ground and sank into soil. This scene opened her mind to enlightenment [10]. When Uppalavanna’s turn came to clean the assembly hall, she completed her duty and for a while she was watching the lamp she lit up in the assembly hall. This outer light kindled her inner light and she became an arahant [11]. Dhamma Theri one day was on her way back to her nunnery, and as she was old and weak she fell down on the way. Then she was mindful of her fall for a while and became an arahant [12]. Similarly The Commentary to the Suttanipata, Paramatthajotika, states that a king of Varanasi attained enlightenment when he was watching the movement of many bangles his queen was wearing when she was pounding sandalwood to make scented powder out of it [13].

It is an important lesson for us to learn from the above examples that there is no fixed posture for fruitful meditation. Although Patacara was standing, and Dhamma was fallen on the ground, their bodily postures were not obstacles to their enlightenment. One could lie down and meditate just as one could walk, stand or sit and meditate. When I claim that meditation while lying down also is an authentic posture, my friends sometimes have taken it as a joke, laziness or fake meditation. Not only any posture but also by bodily movement, for instance the rising and falling of the abdomen, bending and stretching of arms or legs, inhaling and exhaling breath, or even blinking of eyes, can be meditated on. Awareness or mindfulness can be kept on any bodily movement or even non-movement by the meditator. Any posture or non-posture could be effective in meditation. The scriptural support for this claim comes from the often cited Satipatthana Sutta itself.

…abhikkante patikkante sampajanakari hoti. Alokite vilokite sampajanakari hoti. Samminjite pasarite sampajanakari hoti. Samghatipattacivaradharane sampajanakari hoti. Asite pite khayite sayite sampajanakari hoti. Uccarapassavakamme sampajanakari hoti. Gate thite nisinne sutte jagarite bhasite tunhibhave sampajanakari hoti. [14]

Here the Buddha has taught the meditator to be attentive when he or she is going forward, returning, looking straight ahead, looking in other directions, bending arms-legs- or body, stretching out arms- legs- or body, getting dressed, wearing any thing, eating, drinking, tasting, using the toilet, walking, standing, sitting, sleeping or lying down, waking, talking and remaining silent. In short, the Satipatthana Sutta teaches that one has to be mindful all the time. It is clear that in each and every bodily movement one must be alert. All the time, through and through one’s daily living, one has to be attentive to each and every action.

The same commentarial examples and the scriptural reference testify to us that meditative awareness does not require designated special objects for meditation. Any object or any event can serve the purpose. The characteristics of the world are present in everything and in every motion of the world. When one’s mind is sharp enough one is able to comprehend the true nature of reality. That is what meditation does to the mind, it develops insight in the attentive mind.

It is like the famous physicist observing a falling apple. The law of gravity exists and works everywhere and that particular apple is not the only thing that ever fell to the ground. But maturation of the scientist’s wisdom and his observation coincided with the fall of that apple. And he was observing it with his intellectual awareness. He was paying enough attention to that particular event in the nature. So it opened his insight into a universal principle. Meditative attention works the same way. Anything or any event like the movement of bangles or a flame of a lamp can be the right object of meditation for a meditator. Depending on the state of maturity the meditator has achieved, any sight, sound, or any event can bring about enlightenment and see the true nature of the world.

A word about setting a timetable is also in order. To meditate one does not have to set a timetable. Some meditators make timetable like setting a half an hour in the morning and another half an hour in the evening for meditation practice. Others may expand that time to be one hour, two hours, or three hours at a time. There are some others who meditate through much longer periods of time as well. Practitioners create these timetables, some masters set these timetables as well. But the fact is that the Buddha has not made such timetables. A fixed time for daily practice serves very little function in meditation. Our bodily postures exist always and our mind is always active. Under that situation feelings and dharmas always arise. Thus all four satipatthanas are readily available all the time. Besides, as we saw sitting is not the only position in which one can meditate. Therefore, one can meditate any time rather than maintaining a fixed schedule for it.

Regarding a quiet place, we must take the middle path, a balanced attitude towards it. A quiet place is helpful to achieve a quiet mind. A peaceful place brings a peaceful effect on thoughts. However, a sound or a scene is not always hostile to meditation. Any sound or scene can be used as the object of meditation. A song of a bird or the roaring of an air plane could disturb a meditative mind. Yet, what the awareness does in this case is taking the same disturbing sound into the process of meditation. When the sound becomes a part of the mind this way, the sound is no longer an outer hindrance. That sound does not conflict with the inner thoughts. In this manner of meditation a fight between the inner thoughts and the outer sound does not go on in the consciousness of the meditator. Of course, continuous disturbance can be hard to deal with, otherwise, sound or scene should not be very distractive to the one who is dwelling in awareness or mindfulness.

Likewise, one does not have to be stuck into a designated room, seat, or environment every time one meditates. Certain individuals prepare their meditation rooms or even halls following detailed models. These are not very essential for the satipatthaana. Any forest, open air, water front, house, temple, monastery, city, street, vehicle, or other place can be the right place for a person to become mindful.

Just like in sitting meditation, in walking one does not need a particular walking-path for meditation. In forest hermitages yogis make camkamana (sakman maluwa in Sri Lanka) to practice walking meditation. Understandably it is a necessity in a forest. Yet, when one is away from the forest, there is no need to build special paths for meditation. Any indoor or outdoor space is good for walking meditation. What is needed is to keep one’s awareness on walking wherever one walks.

A fixed timetable and a fixed place exemplify the habit forming activities of some meditators. One can get into rigid and stereotype practices through these habits. By being mindful, as seen previously, one is trying, to be free from unconscious habits one has built up throughout life. Instead of doing so, the meditator can create new habits out of the meditative activities themselves and be attached to them. His or her new habit forming activities are not going to liberate him or her from the old habits, instead, unconscious habits will multiply. Such habitual activities can bring reverse effects to the intended goals of meditation. A habitual mind increases attachment instead of freedom and such a mind becomes unsharp or dull instead of clear. A sharp mind penetrates reality.

When the mind becomes unsharp or dull it will live in unreality. And it is noteworthy that meditational activities themselves make the mind dull if they are applied improperly.

When we were very young we learned to walk and it has become a habit to us. There is no meditation in habitual walking. It becomes a meditation when the walker pays his or her attention to the act of walking. Just habitual movement of the legs is not meditation. Only when one is aware of the movement of one’s feet, does that act of walking become a meditation. If the meditator slows down the habitual movement of the feet, then, paying attention becomes easy to the meditator. Gradually one begins to see some occurrences one has not hitherto seen clearly. For instance, raising a foot, moving it, and placing it, become as distinctive from one another. This kind of walking meditation has been emphasised by the Venerable Mahasi Sayado of Burma. The present write learned it under the supervision of the late Venerable Sumatipala when he was the meditation master at the Kanduboda Vipassanaa Centre in Sri Lanka. Each time of raising one’s foot one begins to feel lightness in that foot. When one places the foot one feels the heaviness and its touch of the ground. Being aware of such feelings of the feet belongs to vedanaanupassana satipatthana. Being aware of the movement of the feet belongs to kaayaanupassana satipatthana.

The meditator may experience attachment to the pleasurable feelings of the feet. Then immediately the meditator becomes aware of that particular attachment. That belongs to dhammanupassana satipatthana. Thus all four satipatthanas can be done in walking posture itself. If awareness can turn the habitual action into meditation is it a special kine of awareness one has? Is this meditative awareness different from the ordinary awareness? I would say that they are not qualitatively different. Yet quantitatively there is a difference between the two. Normally we are aware of what we are doing and what is happening, for instance, we are aware of the act of eating ice cream when we eat ice cream. that is only a small quantity of awareness. The meditator applies high intensity of awareness in his or her act of eating ice cream. Only then does the meditator see the flux of life and nothingness and the nature of craving. That living experience brings about a life of philosophical understanding. It is the intensive awareness of the flux of life, but not just a simple awareness that brings about insight into reality. Yet, the ordinary awareness itself can be intensified to the extent of comprehending the whole process of living i.e. the depth of being itself.

That insight into reality is a realisation of the truth. A scholar or a non-scholar with Western or Eastern upbringing or influence can hold onto certain stereotyped notions of reality, philosophy, religion or spiritual path. Buddhist meditation cuts through all these preset models and faces reality as it is. Therefore, the model of meditative path has to be discovered by individuals through doing meditation. On can speculate all theories, philosophies and beliefs concerning the truth or the goal of life. But speculation is not even close to the actual seeing of it. Instead of talking about a path, model, or a goal one must actually engage in seeking it. The intensive awareness of the process of living is the actual engagement. A psychologist helps us to understand the difference between the common mentality and the meditative insight.

As a consequence of its stress upon awareness of watchfulness, Buddhism offers us not a clear-cut model of humans but a set of techniques for each of us to find the model (or better still experience that model) for ourselves. This is one reason why Buddhism cannot be classified as a philosophy or even perhaps as a religion in the strictest Western sense. It does not teach us about ultimate reality so much as teach us a method for experiencing that ultimate reality, or (more accurately though more perplexingly) for experiencing the fact that we ourselves are that ultimate reality. [15]

Thus habitual action can be meditated on. What about non-action? Accordingly to the Satipatthana Sutta itself the meditator must be mindful while he or she is standing, sitting, sleeping and being silent. These moments seem to be non-active, yet, the meditator is active even at these moments. In other words to the meditator non-action also is action. We could say that the fact of being non-active becomes the object of meditation at that point. It is a matter of going from gross state of being into a subtle state of being. Bodily movement is gross compared to bodily non-movement. Talking is gross compared to being silent. And the gross state is easier to objectify or to be aware of than the subtle state. Therefore by shifting meditation from the gross state to subtle state, mind itself moves into a calm state of being.

Not knowing that even non-action becomes action to the meditator, some people develop a wrong notion that the meditator is withdrawing from the social life, closing his or her eyes or mind to the world, and being cut off from what is going on out in the surroundings. Studies show, however, that even in sitting meditation one’s mind and other senses become sharper and more alert. It is not a process of making oneself dull and ignorant to the outside world. A meditator becomes more sensitive than a non-meditator.

The above quoted EEG experiment has proved that the non-meditator’s mind becomes insensitive to the environment and his mind functions on habituation while the meditator’s mind remains alert to the outside world. This is paradoxical to meditative concentration. Simply because the sensitivity becomes sharper in the meditative mind, the meditator becomes more and more sensitive to the condition of the world. People and their pleasure and pain become almost like a part of the meditator himself or herself. That is how he or she grows in compassion. He or she cannot remain aloof doing nothing about the suffering condition in the world. As much as with his quiet meditation he or she becomes involved with people, other living things, and rest of the world in a positive and helpful manner instead of running away from the fellow humans and other beings. The true nature of the meditative mind being a sensitive one, there is no closing of such a mind to the world. Because of the strength of such a mind it could remain uninjured by the worldly situation. However, with the same strength the meditative mind works to eliminate the suffering of others and goes out to serve the world. Such is the paradox of the quiet mind. Contrary to the quiet mind, the noisy mind just drifts on habits seeking more and more pleasure, and becomes insensitive to others feelings and needs. If many practised meditation, this world will be a compassionate, caring and loving world.

Although meditation practice is not limited to the Buddhists, as a concluding remark I would like to point out that the goal of meditation is the goal of Buddhism. They are one and the same. Therefore, the religious path of Buddhism and meditation are inseparable. The well-known Eightfold Path itself incorporates meditation as three of its strands – Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Thus if anyone is following the Buddha’s teaching he or she should walk the Eightfold Path; in other words he or she should practice meditation.

As some people conveniently think, meditation is not something for one to pick up later in one’s life or even in one’s future lives. The contents of the Eightfold Path are not eight steps for one to pass one by one and to reach the eight of the last step at the end of one’s religious life. They are eight strands which grow together in helping each other. Meditation helps wisdom and ethics, and in turn ethics helps meditation and wisdom. When one grows in wisdom it is easy for one to meditate and live an ethical life. Similarly if one meditates it is easy for one to grow in wisdom and ethics [16]. Buddha taught his path to include all eight aspects from the beginning to the end. All of them mature together, but not separately or one after the other. Because they are not steps to be taken one at a time, meditation is not something to add to the religious life somewhere down the road. Rather, it must be present from the beginning of one’s religious life and it must grow into the advance states gradually together with other strands of the path. Therefore, one should not postpone meditation until the last phase of one’s life or one should not wait to meditate until one gets closer to the goal of religious life. Truthfully speaking, the journey on the Buddhist path does not start until one starts meditation. [17]


1. Diigha Nikaaya, 22. Any edition or translation of the Diigha Nikaaya should have the Satipatthana Sutta. This is the major source of the meditation on awareness. Because this sutta or sutra is one of the longest in the Tri Pitaka, it comes in the Diigha Nikaaya which is the collection of the longest discourses of the Buddh

2. Douglas M. Burns, Buddhist Meditation and Depth Psychology (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1980), pp. 52-53

3. Samyutta Nikaaya, Anva Vgga, 2. Diigha Nikaaya is the first book and the Samyutta Nikaaya is the third book of the Sutta Pitaka in the Tri Pitaka.

4. Buddhist Meditation and Depth Psychology, p.2.

5. Guy Claxton, ed., Beyond Therapy: The Impact of Eastern Religions on Psychological Theory and Practice (London: Wisdom Publications, 1986), p. 245.

6. A report on the American Psychological Association Convention, The Atlanta Journal, August 16, 1994, p. B5.

7. Seymour Boorstein and Olaf G. Deatherage, Buddhism in Psychotherapy (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1982), p.26

8. Beyond Therapy: The Impact of Eastern Religions on Psychological Theory and Practice, p.5

9. Dhammapaala, Paramattha Diipani or the Commentary of the Therii Gaatha, ed. by B. Dewarakkhita, Simon Hewavitarana Bequest Series, Vol. III (Colombo: The Tri Pitaka Publication Press, 1918), pp. 4-5.

10. Ibid., p. 89.

11. Ibid., p. 150.

12. Ibid., 18.

13. Buddhaghosa, Paramatthajotikaa or the Commentary to the Sutta Nipata, e. by Sumangala, Simon Hewavitarana Bequest Series, Vol. VIII (Colombo: The Tri Pitaka Publication Press, 1920), p. 64.

14. Satipatthana Sutta, See Note 1.

15. Beyond Therapy: The Impact of Eastern Religions on Psychological Theory and Practice, p.42.

16. Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood belong to ethics. Right View and Right Thought belong to wisdom.

17. The author is thankful to D.J. Amis, University of Georgia, for his comments and criticisms which were very useful in improving this article.

About the Author

Professor Shanta Ratnayaka gained his B.A.(Hons) from Jayawardhanapura University (Sri Lanka) and completed his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Northwestern University (USA). At present he is the Professor of World Religions at the University of Georgia.

Professor Ratnayaka is a distinguished scholar and has been involved in acadamic and community oragnisations to further the knowledge of Buddhism and other Asian philosophies. He is currently the President-Elect of the Association of Asian Studies in the USA (Southeastern Region).

Professor Ratnayaka’s other works include:

Two Ways of Perfection: Buddhist and Christian (Colombo: Lakehouse Investments Ltd)

The Threefold Refuge in the Theravada Buddhist Tradition (Anima Books)

He has also written chapters of several books including:

  • Zen is the Theravada Branch of Buddhism in Mahayana Countries (Gordon Fraser)
  • Process and Philosophy and Theravada Buddhism
  • Philosophical Implication of Pali in Buddhism (in press).

His articles have appeared in many international journals and he has presented papers at international conferences such as the American Academy of Religion, Association for Asian Studies and the International Association of Buddhist Studies.

BSQ Tracts on Buddhism No. 19