Vapassana Meditation Workshop
by Chanmyay Sayadaw
Today I’ll continue my discourse on the practical exercise of mindfulness meditation. Yesterday I dealt with how to practice walking meditation systematically and methodically. Even though you are treading on the right path leading to the cessation of all kinds of suffering, if your practice is not systematic and methodical your success will be delayed. So systematic practice is vitally needed for a meditator to achieve his goal.
In the same way sitting also should be systematic and methodical. If you can sit systematically then you can concentrate your mind very well in a short time. The Buddha prescribed a mode of sitting for meditation: sitting in a cross legged position, keeping the body erect, and also the neck and head in an upright position and the eyes should be closed. In that way the body is supported.
But for many westerners it’s difficult to sit in a cross legged position systematically, because they are not accustomed to sitting on the floor. They usually sit on chairs so they find it difficult to sit in a cross legged position on the floor comfortably. That’s why they have to use a cushion or something like that. So for westerners the mode of sitting mentioned by the Buddha in the discourse is not good for their comfortable and diligent mindfulness and deep concentration. However, if they try to sit in that cross legged position, gradually they can become accustomed to it and they can do it very well. Some of the meditators sit on their cushion and they bend their legs in a somewhat cross legged position. It’s good for them to focus their mind on the abdominal movement because if they sit on the cushion they can keep their body in an upright position. The body rarely bends when they sit, say for some ten or twenty minutes, because of the support of their cushion.
But when they get painful sensations then unconsciously or consciously they change their position. When they change their position some of them sit with their knees upright. It’s very awkward for them and also not suitable for practice of the Dhamma. They should not sit in a position with their knees keeping upright because it doesn’t help them to concentrate their mind well on the object of meditation. It’s not systematic sitting.
Working with Pain
Another aspect of the practice is that when you feel a painful sensation to be unbearable you have a tendency to change position. You should be patient with the pain and note it as much as possible attentively and methodically, not to change instantly but you should proceed with mindfulness of the pain. Eventually if the painful sensation becomes unbearable you can change only once in a sitting. But for some who can sit an hour without changing position it is not good to change the position in a sitting. Such yogis should not change their position. If the pain becomes unbearable then you should get up and practice walking meditation. That’s better because when you have a change in the position then your concentration has been broken. Even though you continue to sit after changing your position you can’t get deep concentration. So it’s not very beneficial for you to change your position if you can sit an hour without changing it.
And in walking too, you should not walk only at ten minutes or fifteen minutes, for a short time. You should walk at least an hour if you can walk without any disturbance to your bodily processes. Only after that you should sit again for meditation. The most important point in walking is not to look round here and there. Naturally you have a tendency or desire to look round when you hear the sound of someone’s voice, when you feel something is happening nearby or someone is coming towards you, and so on. But whenever you have a desire or tendency to look round, you should make a mental note of that desire or tendency as: desire, desire, desire, tendency, tendency, and so on. When that desire has disappeared you won’t look round and you can resume your walking. Your concentration is still stable to a certain extent. It’s not broken.
Yesterday, I explained to you how a meditator can observe twelve parts of a step, including intention before every action as mentioned in the Commentary to the Pali text. But it depends on you how many of the actions you should note. You should watch some objects as comfortably as you feel. If you have to exert or endeavour your utmost to be aware of any number of objects uncomfortably, you should not do that. If you do that you feel tense on your neck or your back, and sometimes you feel a headache. Sometimes you feel dizzy because you have to strain too much to be aware of each part of the step. So it depends on you; you yourself know. Normally for a meditator it should be adequate to note four or five objects of a step comfortably without strains with your relaxation: intending, lifting, moving, dropping, or touching. If you are able to observe these four or five objects precisely and very attentively then you can attain a deep concentration on the movement of the foot.
To be aware of these four or five objects very precisely and attentively you have to slow down your stepping. Unless your step is slow you cannot catch each individual part of the step very well. It’s indispensable for you to slow down your step so that you can note all these four or five objects very precisely and attentively. Now when you are able to note all these four objects very well, your concentration gradually becomes better and better. You can note intention very concentratedly. Then the lifting movement you can note with diligent mindfulness. Then the pushing movement and putting movement and touching sensation you can know very well without looking here and there. In this way when you practice walking meditation for about three or four days you can attain a deep concentration.
Five Benefits of Walking Meditation
And as to walking meditation the Buddha said there are five benefits of walking. (1) The first benefit is that you can walk on foot a very long journey, because you have practised walking.
(2) Then the second benefit is you will be perseverant with the strenuous effort in your practice. Because you see, it’s the nature of a human being to stay still and sit idly, enjoying something. He doesn’t want to walk or stand. He likes sitting better than straining and walking. In other words he is naturally lazy to walk so he would like to sit always. So if a person trained himself in walking for a very long time then because of his exertion he likes to walk. He is not reluctant to walk. That means he has the energy or effort to do something actively with alertness. Walking makes him active and alert. So whatever he does he puts the utmost effort in the doing of that thing. That’s why the Buddha said, if you practise walking you become industrious, perseverant, with utmost effort.
(3) You yourself know when you are afraid of cholesterol in your body you do jogging every morning or every evening. Jogging is a sort of walking practise. When the time comes up you are not lazy to do jogging. That’s because you have practised that jogging. That’s what the Buddha said. One of the benefits of walking is the perseverant and diligent effort one can have.
(4) Then the fourth benefit of walking is healthiness. If a person practises walking he is healthier than the person who is lazy. By practising walking you can be healthy both mentally and physically. Mental health is much more important than physical health. Regarding healthiness, the Buddha said the food you have taken is easily digested. Because of the digestion you are healthy. That’s the benefit of walking. After you have taken a lot of food into your stomach, if you lie down or if you sit it’s somewhat difficult for you to digest it. After you have taken that much food, then if you walk the food is easily digested. So healthiness together with digestion is one of the benefits of walking.
If you are lazy you can’t meditate. If you are lazy you do not come here for meditation. Because you are not lazy you come here to meditate. Yesterday when I explained how to practise walking meditation systematically, after the talk most of the yogis took an interest in walking and they practised it. Then at the time of the interview they told me, `I enjoy it.` Why do you enjoy it? Because you like to be industrious and to be perseverant as the result of walking meditation.
The most important benefit of walking, what the Buddha said in accordance with this discourse, is concentration. The Buddha said the concentration you have attained in walking meditation lasts very long. You can easily concentrate your mind on the movement of the foot in a short time when you take an interest in walking, and also do it strenuously, because in walking the object of meditation is more pronounced than in sitting.
In sitting the respiration or abdominal movement is not distinct to your mind. In the beginning of sitting you may find it and you may be able to note it very well: rising, falling, rising, falling. Sometimes it becomes irregular because you make too much effort in your noting of the abdominal movement so that it can be more distinct. But in walking you didn’t have such a problem. In walking naturally the lifting movement, pushing movement, dropping movement of the foot is very prominent, very distinct to your mind so that you can easily note it.
When the object of meditation is prominent or predominant then you can easily note it. You can easily watch it. Because you can easily watch it your mind becomes very quickly concentrated on it. Then that concentration becomes also deep so it will last very long. One of the benefits of walking is to attain a long lasting concentration of the mind. Naturally some of you practise walking meditation systematically and diligently so you have had some concentration of the mind which is somewhat deep, better than you have had in sitting meditation. You know it through your experience.
That’s what the Buddha said, you can attain long lasting concentration by means of walking. So when you are aware of each individual movement of the foot, and sometimes the intention too, then the mind becomes gradually concentrated on the movement of the foot very well. And the more energetically you note the movement the more deep is the concentration of the mind. Then when concentration becomes deeper and deeper you feel your feet become light as they automatically lift, automatically push forward, automatically drop down. You come to realise it. Sometimes you get startled at the experience of this automatic lifting and pushing and dropping of the foot. and as soon as you feel it you say to yourself, `Hah, what’s that? Am I mad or not?` In this way you get startled at the unusual experience of the movement of the foot.
When I conducted a meditation retreat in England at the Manjusri Tibetan Monastery, the Manjusri Institute in northern England near the border of Scotland, one of the meditators had put much effort into his practise both sitting as well as walking, and awareness of the activities too. So after about four days meditation he came to me and asked a question. ”Venerable Sir, my meditation is getting worse and worse,’ he said. ‘Now what happen to your meditation?’ I asked him. Then he said, ‘When I am walking one day, Venerable Sir, then gradually I am not aware of myself. The foot itself had lifted, and it itself pushed forward, and then dropped down by itself. There’s no I or no me, no self, no myself. Sometimes though I control my foot, the foot doesn’t stay with the ground. It lifted by itself. Sometimes it pushed forward very long. I couldn’t control it. Then sometimes it’s getting down by itself. So my meditation is getting worse and worse. What should I do?’ Then eventually he said, ‘I think I have gone mad.’ Such an experience was very amazing.
This is a benefit of walking meditation. First of all he said, ‘I don’t know myself. I’m not aware of myself. I don’t know my body, my leg.’ That means the realisation of the movement of the foot. The movement of the foot has destroyed the idea of an ‘I’ or a ‘you’, a ‘self’ or a ‘soul’, a ‘person’ or ‘being’. Here what he was realising was the impersonal nature of our bodily process called Anatta. No soul, non-ego, non-self nature of our bodily phenomena.
When he said, ‘The foot is automatically lifted up by itself. It’s automatically pushed forward by itself’, that means there’s no person or no being, no self who lifted the foot, who pushed it forward, who dropped it down. It’s the realisation of the impermanent nature of physical processes or physical phenomena: Anatta. Before he didn’t realise the physical process of the rising-falling movement and the other parts of the body in sitting, he realised the processes of rising, lifting movement, pushing movement, the falling movement of the phenomena as it really is. So he has destroyed the false idea of an I or a you, a person or a being, a self or a soul – Anatta.
It was very interesting. Not only this yogi but also many yogis in Burma experienced it in this way. And sometimes before you experience this stage of insight knowledge you feel you are walking on waves of the sea. Or you are standing on a boat which was floating on the waves of the sea. Sometimes you may feel you are walking on a heap of cotton. Sometimes you feel you are walking in the air. That is also one of the insight knowledge which penetrates into the true nature of material process, material phenomena.
The Six Elements Explained
In accordance with the Buddha’s philosophy this so-called person is composed of six elements: the four material elements and the one mental element. Of the four physical, material elements the first one is the element of hardness and softness. We call it pathavi-dhatu. The second is the element of fluidity and coalition. We call it apo-dhatu in Pali. The third is the element of heat and cold, temperature. We call it tejo-dhatu. The fourth is the element of motion, movement, vibration, expansion and contraction. This is called vayo-dhatu in Pali.
These four primary material elements constitute the so-called bodily process. When you feel your body then you may have a sensation of hardness or softness. That is pathavi-dhatu. You may feel heat or cold. That’s tejo-dhatu. You feel the nature of fluidity or coalition. That’s apo-dhatu. You may feel motion, movement, vibration, supporting. This is vayo-dhatu, one element.
These four primary elements together with the other minor elements are composed as a material unit called the indestructible unit – kalapa. These eight elements cannot be divided, cannot be destroyed even with the atomic bomb. You can divide the atom into say nucleus and proton and neutron and so on. But the tiniest detail of the atom consists of these four primary elements. So you can’t divide it. You can’t destroy it so it is called the unit of indestructibility – Avinibhoga-rupa in Pali. So when the innumerable number of these material units are composed then they become a body: a finger, a nail, a hair, and so on.
So, in between these units there’s a space. That space is known as akasa-dhatu. This is one of the six elements which constitutes the so-called bodily process.
Then the sixth one is the mental element. That is, mind, consciousness, mental processes, emotional processes. All these are called vinyana-dhatu, the mental element or mind element.
Normally we are not able to penetrate into these elements and realise them in their true nature. That’s why we take these compounded elements for a personal being, an I or a you, because we can’t divide. Our intellectual knowledge is not enough to penetrate into these elements, and realise them in their true nature. So we think this is a body, this is a mind, this a man, this is a woman, this is a leg, this is a nose, this a hair. If we have penetrating insight knowledge through our vipassana meditation, insight meditation, then we can penetrate into these primary elements and know them and their nature and also their appearance and disappearance, and the nature of transitoriness of these elements.
So here when you practise walking meditation you feel that you are walking on a boat which is floating on the waves of the sea, or as though you were walking on the air, or as though you are walking on a heap of cotton. You are realising the specific nature or specific characteristic of the wind element vayo-dhatu. Vayo-dhatu, the wind element has movement, motion, supporting, vibrating as its specific characteristics, or individual characteristics.
Normally we do not realise it. But when we watch the movement of the foot while we are walking very closely, attentively and precisely, then our concentration becomes deeper and deeper. Then, because of deep concentration the insight knowledge or experiential knowing becomes penetrating and sharp. So that penetrating insight realises the process of movement and its specific characteristics of movement, motion, vibrating and supporting. So we feel we are walking on the air, or we are standing on the boat, or on the waves of the sea. Because the waves of the sea are always moving.
Then, gradually our concentration becomes deeper. You will feel the specific characteristics of the wind element in that way. At that time you very often feel you are not yourself. Here you are not yourself` means you are not mad. You are not aware of your body. You are not aware of yourself. What you are here realising is just movement. A great deal of movement which is going on of its own accord. So in this way you have destroyed the idea of a personal being, a self or a soul by means of the walking meditation.
But here you should be careful not to expect any unusual experiences when you are walking. When you expect anything, the expectation disturbs your concentration. Then the concentration becomes weak. Then you can’t experience anything new. So you mustn’t expect anything. But what I have explained to you is that your noting of the movement of the foot has such and such a benefit you can experience.
So what you should do is just be mindful of what is happening to your body and mind, that’s all. Except for mindfulness you mustn’t do anything else. You mustn’t expect anything, you mustn’t be curious or inquisitive about anything. But what you should do is be mindful of what’s happening. If you have expectation, that expectation must be aware of expecting. If you have curiosity, curiosity must be aware of curiosity, and so on until it has disappeared. You mustn’t allow them to disturb your concentration and mindfulness. So what you should do is just be mindful while you are walking, while you are sitting, while you are lined up, while you are eating, while you are dressing, while you are showering, whatever you are doing. What you should do is just be mindful of it as it is, that’s all.
The Attainment of Patajara
In the time of the Buddha one of the Bikkhunis, a Bikkhuni is a female monk, was summoned by the Buddha. That Bikkhuni’s name was Patajara, she was the daughter of a wealthy person. Say a billionaire, not a millionaire. But when she was grown up she married a servant, so she had to go to the other village and stay there because she was afraid of their parents. Then she had a great deal of trouble because she was a human being. Human beings are surrounded by many sufferings, dukkha. Her husband died. Her two sons and her parents also died. Her half brothers died. The house of Patajara collapsed in a storm due to the heavy rain. So she was mad because of her anxiety, sorrow, worry, lamentation, and despair and she roamed in the city.
But one day the Buddha summoned her to the audience in the monastery of Jetavana to listen to the Buddha’s sermon. The Omniscient Buddha knew that she was Patajara and also that her mental faculties were ripe for the attainment of enlightenment. So the Buddha said to her, ‘Oh beloved sister, please be careful, please come round’. When she heard what the Buddha said she came round, her mind became normal. Then the Omniscient Buddha told her to sit and listen to the his teachings.
While she was listening to the Dhamma the Buddha explained to the audience the Four Noble Truths. The first is the truth of suffering, Dukkha. The second is the Truth of the Cause of Suffering, Samudaya . The third is the truth of the Cessation of Suffering, Nirodha. Then the fourth is the Truth of the Way Leading to the Cessation of Suffering, that is mindfulness and meditation. When the Buddha explained the truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering, and how to practise mindfulness and meditation – when anyone wants to get rid of all kinds of suffering – then Patajara who had a great deal of suffering wanted to get rid of it.
So while listening to Dhamma she tried to be mindful of what is happening to her body and mind, and also consciousness, the hearing. In this way she gradually concentrated her mind very well. And when she had attained a deep concentration her insight knowledge became penetrating and realised all mental and physical phenomena in their true nature. And eventually she attained the four stages of enlightenment which completely uprooted all mental defilements together with their potentialities. Then she lived happily and peacefully without any suffering, stress or worries, sorrows and lamentation. She became free from all kinds of mental and physical suffering.
But what I should tell you is this woman attained the first stage of enlightenment while she was listening to Dhamma and after that she asked the Buddha for ordination as a Bikkhuni. So the Buddha told the other Bikkhunis to ordain her. After he ordained her as a Bikkhuni she proceeded with her practise of mindfulness and meditation.
And one day at night she practised walking meditation the whole night. Then because of her walking meditation her concentration became deeper and deeper and also stable and firm. When she had realised the viability of her concentration she went to her room and sat for meditation. When she approached her bed she noted all activities: her standing, standing, and bending bending , then turning, turning, when you sit down on the bed, sitting down, sitting down. Then after she had settled herself on the seat she took a small stick and stretching her arm, reached her arm to the lamp which was flaming. Then with that stick she noticed stretching, stretching. She then pressed the flame with the stick, pressing, pressing, pressing. Then the flame submerged into the oil and it was extinguished. As soon as the flame had submerged into the oil she attained three other higher stages of enlightenment, and all defilement was destroyed by this enlightenment. She became an Arahant and lived in peace and happiness. Here, because of deep concentration she attained from walking meditation, she could be aware of all daily activities, and that awareness made her attain to the other higher stages of enlightenment which totally destroy all defilements.