Mar 21, 2009

My Way or the Highway

I've been thinking more about a statement I made in a recent post; that in the long history of Buddhist sectarianism there were very few splits on issues related to meditation practice. In fact, the only example I could think of was the Zen split between Soto and Rinzai. In the comments to that post Honsing said;

Hence although there is no dispute over meditation, I believe for many, we quietly do have a favorite form of meditation and would reason that the other forms are less suitable for ourselves. Hence disputes are kept personal and silent. Meditation is a very personal experience, it is hard to conclude that what is not suitable would not be suitable for others.


Well said. It may be that a similar reason underlies the dearth of explicit meditation instruction in the Pali canon. Nevertheless, I'm feeling contrarian today, so I will post a rather large caveat. While it is quite true that there have been very few disputes over meditation that grew serious enough to culminate in schism, there always have been, and probably always will be many disputes among teachers and practitioners about meditation.

I'd like to list a few here. I am going to try not to let my own biases show too much but just present the controversies.

Jhana - If you just go by the Vissudhimagga tradition the topic of jhana seems very cut-and-dried. Four jhanas, five factors in the first jhana, jhana needed before insight and so forth. However, if you explore a little wider and read and listen to different teachers you'll find a very wide range of views about exactly what constitutes jhana, how best to attain it and how much is really necessary before undertaking insight. Just to demonstrate the wide range of positions out there, I heard of one ajahn in Thailand who taught that all four jhanas can be developed together, gradually deepening each one in turn. According to this teacher, the very lowest level of first jhana is the amount of concentration needed to thread a needle. Some teachers caution against developing the jhanas at all, warning about a danger of attachment.

Note that all this variation is just within the Theravada! Going further afield, the Zen school is actually named after jhana. Sanskrit dhyana is Pali jhana is Chinese Chan is Japanese Zen. And yet the Rinzai at least have moved almost completely away from one-pointed practice. And Thich Nhat Hanh is one of those who warns against attachement to jhana.

Discursive Thought - Some teachers seem to regard the quieting of thought as almost the goal of meditation. Others say it is not really an issue, it's just what the mind does and that the problem is only in the identification with thought.

The Importance of Technique - Some meditation methods rely heavily on the following of a fixed technique or even a graded series of techniques. Other teachers regard reliance on technique as a form of rite-and-ritual clinging and advocate a more free-form meditation. This contrast is strongly seem between Burma and Thailand.

Outside the Theravada we also see an interesting range. Zen Shinkaza (just sitting) could be characterized as a technique of no-technique. Vajrayana visualization practices are extremely programmed techniques requiring a great deal of disciplined attention to detail, whereas Dzogchen denies technique so radically that it asserts "the view is the practice."

Posture - While some Zen teachers make a very big issue out of sitting correctly, Theravada is much looser in this regard. But there are still differences of opinion. Some hold it necessary to sit still even when in pain, others say it is alright to shift posture mindfully to escape "galling limitations."

The amount and the style of meditation in the walking posture is also a matter of differences. Theravadins do a lot of it, especially I think in the Thai tradition. Most Zen practitioners do only a short brisk walk between sits mostly to ease the body. The Ajahn Mun tradition in Thailand says that walking must be done with hands folded in front and only in a north-south direction.

Mindfulness of Breathing - There are a wide range of variations on this very basic practice, some of which have been matters of controversy. You might think just breathing in and out would be too basic to foster a large literature of scholarly dispute but you would be wrong! For example, the passage in the sutta which says "noticing the whole breath-body, he breaths in, noticing the whole breath-body, he breaths out" is interpreted by the commentary as meaning the whole duration of the breath. Many later writers and teachers dispute this and hold that it refers to watching the whole body breathe.

There is also a very long-lasting dispute about the nature and role of the nimitta (sign) in breath meditation. The Visuddhimagga, which is generally the standard of Theravada orthodoxy, says that a visual image will arise which becomes the focus of attention. The nearly contemporary Vimuttimagga teaches instead that the proper sign in breath meditation is purely tactile.

---------------

I've only scratched the surface of possible controversies here. And we haven't looked at issues related to the peripherals of meditation like diet, exercise, view, life-style and so forth. I hesitate to draw any final conclusions, but will leave you with one thought; it isn't all cut-and-dried by any means!

15 comments:

Ashin said...

Dear Dhamma Brother,

"...the dearth of explicit meditation instruction in the Pali canon."

If you mean quantitatively, I would agree. But if you mean qualitatively, wouldn't you consider the (Maha)Satipatthana Sutta to be an excellent, very specific and precise meditation guide?

Douglas said...

And what about "vipassana" where it is encouraged to scan the entire body (supposedly the original form that Buddha taught). However, with that being said, and deciphering the logic in all practices, when there is no logic at all.

zontco said...

Off topic but worth reading

http://www.michaelparenti.org/Tibet.html

doug rogers said...

Historicity isn't the truth.

Philip Kienholz said...

Nice clear, capsule review.

Santikaro said...

Greetings Venerable. Nice piece & overview. We'll always have points of disagreement as the range of experience, personality, culture, etc. is vast. I once bemoaned this, wanting "the one true way," but have grown increasingly thankful for the diversity and wary of those who offer the "only way." After all, liberation is beyond concepts, words, theories, and techniques, tho concepts, words, theories, and techniques may help us along the way, e.g., anapanasati-bhavana.

LV said...

"For example, the passage in the sutta which says "noticing the whole breath-body, he breaths in, noticing the whole breath-body, he breaths out" is interpreted by the commentary as meaning the whole duration of the breath. Many later writers and teachers dispute this and hold that it refers to watching the whole body breathe."

Personally, I'm not really a fan of the commentaries (the kasina method just strikes me as bizarre) and Abhidhamma when it comes to meditation practice. If you read the suttas, it is obvious that you are supposed to be aware of the whole body and that you are supposed to manipulate the breath sensations skillfully:

"Just as if a skilled bathman or bathman's apprentice would pour bath powder into a brass basin and knead it together, sprinkling it again and again with water, so that his ball of bath powder — saturated, moisture-laden, permeated within and without — would nevertheless not drip; even so, the monk permeates, suffuses and fills this very body with the rapture and pleasure born of withdrawal. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal. This is the first development of the five-factored noble right concentration."

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.028.than.html

Honsing said...

Thank you Venerable for an overview of the diversity of meditation practices. This serves well as a reference source!

Personally I feel that the motivation behind the meditation, which you have left out, is more important than the form. Here are some different motivations that I can think of:
1) developing concentration: in this family jhanas play an important role.
2) developing mindfulness: popular here is Vipassana, breathing meditation and walking meditation.
3) developing wisdom: here I would further classify into 3:
3a) through instaneous Enlightenment: popular here is Zen.
3b) through contemplation: such as contemplating on a philosophy or sutra.
3c) through visualization or psychic link: popular in Tibetan and Pure Land school.
4) developing or invoking certain mental states: popular in Tibetan practices such as to develop Compassion, or calmness or overcoming negative emotions.
5) invocation of certain spells or supernatural: such motivation is probably frowned upon in most traditional Buddhist schools.

Hence diversity of meditation goes beyond form, and even right into the very motivations. Am I right?

NotImportant said...

But if you mean qualitatively, wouldn't you consider the (Maha)Satipatthana Sutta to be an excellent, very specific and precise meditation guide? - Ashin

The short answer is "No".

Satipatthana sutta gave a set of objects/subjects of meditation. The term "knowing" or "sati" for "remembering" are not explicit and has been a point of contention.

Niladri said...

To
Venerable Sir
My name is Sadhuvijay Kumaran.I am a Hindu and is new to this philosophical world.I have heard that the Buddha attained Nibbana,that is what we hindu call Moksha(enlightenment).According to hinduism,a person at enlightenment experience the unreal and illusionary nature of this world along with a deathless state of mind that is permanent.At that state we experience brahman which is nondual in nature,neither with form nor with qualities,ever lightful,true knowledge and of whose manifestation is the entire world is.According to buddhism at enlightenment sunyata is experienced.I want to ask is this 'sunyata' is the ultimate reality in buddhism? and whether 'sunyata' has the same charecteristics as 'brahman'?I will be greatful if you can give more clear explanation of 'sunyata'.You can post here or send it to my email address
jkkar12@yahoo.com

Expecting your answer soon
from
Sadhuvijay

sadhuvijay said...

Venerable SIR,
Could you tell me the practicality of buddhism? I mean Lord uddha always starts teaching from 'dispassion'.Thus it only suits for monks rathar than for working household people.What can be the practical use of studing five aggregates?I would be thankful if could give some light to this confusion of mine.
from
Sadhuvijay

sadhuvijay said...

Venerable SIR,
Could you tell me the practicality of buddhism? I mean Lord uddha always starts teaching from 'dispassion'.Thus it only suits for monks rathar than for working household people.What can be the practical use of studing five aggregates?I would be thankful if could give some light to this confusion of mine.
from
Sadhuvijay

Santikaro said...

"Lord Buddha always starts teaching from 'dispassion'.Thus it only suits for monks rathar than for working household people."

I wonder where you get this impression. If you familiarize yourself with the Pali suttas, you'll see that there are many starting points in the way the Buddha taught. He starts with something the listener can relate to and he was pretty good at speaking to the level of the audience.

If 'dispassion' is viraga, that usually comes as a result of rather profound insights into impermanence. Practice that supports such insights involves a number of things and there is nowhere that the Buddha says such practice is beyond so-called "lay people."

Start where you can. It's sad how many people get caught up in conceptual absolutism -- it's this one way and only that -- tho the Buddha regularly critiques such clinging to views. Practice in the ways you are able, aiming for the end of dukkha. Dhamma is not dogmatic or one size fits all.

Santikaro said...

"What can be the practical use of studying five aggregates?"

If you mean intellectual study, the main purpose is to understand what the 5 terms are pointing to so that you can be mindful of them.

The real study is through mindfulness and investigation, the purpose of which is twofold.

(1) to realize how these function and how we cling to these functions as "me & "mine"

(2) to realize that this bait for clinging are impermanent, uncertain, inherently unstable & undependable, concocted, and empty of self.

Best wishes.

Ven. Jo Jo said...

My training and practice has always been in BOTH Theravāda and Mahāyāna. Indeed, "my Buddhism" has morphed into a blend of the two — the best of both worlds I guess. Which often puts me on par with the red-headed stepchild in Buddhist circles :)
Because of this background it was drilled into me to be open and tolerant of various points of view by my master. I often say that the various techniques are like tools in a toolbox. It would be ridiculous to try and build a house using only a screwdriver — one tool. The various methods of meditation also have their respective areas in which they excel.
Bottom line is it's important for people to not confuse their opinions and preferences with what's "right" and "wrong".
Thanks for the post. Good topic.