BUDDHIST MEDITATION AND DEPTH PSYCHOLOGY
Douglas M. Burns
The Wheel Publication No. 88/89
Copyright 1967, 1981 by Buddhist Publication Society
Third Revised Edition with Appendix
First edition published in 1967
Second edition revised and enlarged edition: 1973
Third revised edition: 1981
BUDDHIST PUBLICATION SOCIETY
KANDY SRI LANKA
* * *
DharmaNet Edition 1995
Transcribed directly from BPS Pagemaker files
Formatting: John Bullitt
This electronic edition is offered for free distribution
via DharmaNet by arrangement with the publisher.
P.O. Box 4951, Berkeley CA 94704-4951
* * * * * * * *
BUDDHIST MEDITATION AND DEPTH PSYCHOLOGY
Mind is the forerunner of all (evil) conditions.
Mind is their chief, and they are mind-made.
If, with an impure mind, one speaks or acts,
Then suffering follows one
Even as the cart wheel follows the hoof of the ox.
Mind is the forerunner of all (good) conditions.
Mind is their chief, and they are mind-made.
If, with a pure mind, one speaks or acts,
Then happiness follows one
Like a never-departing shadow.
These words, which are the opening lines of the Dhammapada, were
spoken by Gotama Buddha 2500 years ago. They illustrate the central
theme of Buddhist teaching, the human mind.
Buddhism is probably the least understood of all major religions.
Indeed, from an Occidental viewpoint we might well question whether it
warrants the title of religion. In the West we are accustomed to
thinking of theology in terms of God, revelation, obedience,
punishment, and redemption. The themes of creation, worship,
judgement, and immortality have been major concerns in the Christian
heritage and are virtually inseparable from our concept of religion.
Against such a cultural background Western man views Buddhism and in
so doing unconsciously projects his own concepts, values and
expectations. Erroneously he perceives ceremonies and bowing as
examples of worship or even idolatry.
He may extol its scientific world view or abhor and condemn its
"atheism." The Buddha is vaguely equated with God or Jesus, and
meditation is suspected of being a hypnotic approach to mysticism or
an escape from reality.
However, such erroneous notions of the Dhamma, the teaching of the
Buddha, are not entirely the result of Western ignorance and
ethnocentrism. Before his demise the Buddha predicted that within a
thousand years his doctrine would fall into the hands of men of lesser
understanding and would thereby become corrupted and distorted.
Such has been the case throughout much, if not most, of the Orient.
Ritual has replaced self-discipline, faith has replaced insight, and
prayer has replaced understanding.
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: 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. Even such notions as purpose, value, virtue, goodness,
and worth have meaning only as the results of our attitudes and
Buddhism does not deny the reality of material existence, nor does
it ignore the very great effect that the physical world has upon us.
On the contrary, it refutes the mind-body dichotomy of the Brahmans
and says that mind and body are interdependent. But since the
fundamental reality of human existence is the ever-changing sequence
of thoughts, feelings, emotions, and perceptions which comprise
conscious experience, then, from the viewpoint of early Buddhism, the
primary concern of religion must be these very experiences which make
up our daily lives. Most significant of these are love and hate, fear
and sorrow, pride and passion, struggle and defeat. Conversely, such
concepts as vicarious atonement, Cosmic Consciousness, Ultimate
Reality, Buddha Nature, and redemption of sins are metaphysical and
hypothetical matters of secondary importance to the realities of daily
Therefore, in Buddhism the most significant fact of life is the
first noble truth, the inevitable existence of //dukkha//. //Dukkha//
is a Pali word embracing all types of displeasurable experience --
sorrow, fear, worry, pain, despair, discord, frustration, agitation,
irritation, etc. The second noble truth states that the cause of
//dukkha// is desire or craving. In various texts this cause is
further explained as being threefold -- greed, hatred, and delusion.
Again, on other occasions the Buddha divided the cause of suffering
into five components -- sensual lust, anger, sloth or torpor,
agitation or worry, and doubt. On still other occasions he listed ten
causes of //dukkha// -- belief that oneself is an unchanging entity;
scepticism; belief in salvation through rites, rules and ceremonies;
sensual lust; hatred; craving for fine-material existence; craving for
immaterial existence; conceit; restlessness; and ignorance. The Third
Noble Truth states that //dukkha// can be overcome, and the Fourth
Truth prescribes the means by which this is achieved.
Thus, with the Fourth Noble Truth, Buddhism becomes a technique, a
discipline, a way of life designed to free people from sorrow and
improve the nature of human existence. This aspect of the Dhamma is
called the Noble Eightfold Path, and includes moral teachings,
self-discipline, development of wisdom and understanding, and
improvement of one's environment on both a personal and social level.
These have been dealt with in previous writings and for the sake of
brevity will not be repeated here. Suffice it to remind the reader
that this essay is concerned with only one aspect of Buddhism, the
practice of meditation. The ethical, practical, and logical facets of
the Teaching are covered in other publications.
If the cause of suffering is primarily psychological, then it must
follow that the cure, also, is psychological. Therefore, we find in
Buddhism a series of "mental exercises" or meditations designed to
uncover and cure our psychic aberrations.
Mistakenly, Buddhist meditation is frequently confused with yogic
meditation, which often includes physical contortions, autohypnosis,
quests for occult powers, and an attempted union with God. None of
these are concerns or practices of the Eightfold Path. There are in
Buddhism no drugs or stimulants, no secret teachings, and no mystical
formulae. Buddhist meditation deals exclusively with the everyday
phenomena of human consciousness. In the words of the Venerable
Nyanaponika Thera, a renowned Buddhist scholar and monk:
In its spirit of self-reliance, Satipatthana does not require any
elaborate //technique// or external devices. The daily life is
its working material. It has nothing to do with any exotic cults
or rites nor does it confer "initiations" or "esoteric knowledge"
in any way other than by self-enlightenment.
Using just the conditions of life it finds, Satipatthana does not
require complete seclusion or monastic life, though in some who
undertake the practice, the desire and need for these may
Lest the reader suspect that some peculiarity of the "Western mind"
precludes Occidentals from the successful practice of meditation, we
should note also the words of Rear Admiral E.H. Shattock, a British
naval officer, who spent three weeks of diligent meditation practice
in a Theravada monastery near Rangoon:
Meditation, therefore, is a really practical occupation: it is in
no sense necessarily a religious one, though it is usually
thought of as such. It is itself basically academic, practical,
and profitable. It is, I think, necessary to emphasize this
point, because so many only associate meditation with holy or
saintly people, and regard it as an advanced form of the pious
life.... This is not the tale of a conversion, but of an attempt
to test the reaction of a well-tried Eastern system on a typical
Reading about meditation is like reading about swimming; only by
getting into the water does the aspiring swimmer begin to progress. So
it is with meditation and Buddhism in general. The Dhamma must be
lived, not merely thought. Study and contemplation are valuable tools,
but life itself is the training ground.
The following passages are attempts to put into words what must be
experienced within oneself. Or in the words of the Dhammapada:
"Buddhas only point the way. Each one must work out his own salvation
with diligence." Meditation is a personal experience, a subjective
experience, and consequently each of us must tread his or her own path
towards the summit of Enlightenment. By words we can instruct and
encourage but words are only symbols for reality.
* * *
The Goals of Meditation
Before discussing the techniques of meditation, it is important that
we first define its goals. That is, why does one meditate? What does
one hope to achieve?
The ultimate goals of meditation are the ultimate goals of
Buddhism, i.e. realization of Nibbana and the abolition of //dukkha//
or suffering. Nibbana, however, is beyond the realm of
conceptualization and all other forms of normal human experience.
Therefore, we have no certainty that it exists until we ourselves have
progressed to realizing it as a direct experience transcending logic
and sense perception. Nibbana can thus be defined as that which is
experienced when one has achieved ultimate moral and psychological
maturation. Little more can be said.
Therefore the Buddha said relatively little about Nibbana and
instead directed most of his teachings towards two lesser goals which
are empirical realities of readily demonstrable worth. These were,
first, the increase, enhancement, and cultivation of positive feelings
such as love, compassion, equanimity, mental purity, and the happiness
found in bringing happiness to others. Secondly, he advocated the
relinquishment and renunciation of greed, hatred, delusion, conceit,
agitation, and other negative, unwholesome states.
As we gain in experience and self-understanding, and as we acquire
full appreciation for the nature and quality of our own feelings, we
find that the positive feelings (love, compassion, etc.) are
satisfying, meaningful, and wholesome experiences in and of
themselves. That is, they have their own inherent worth and intrinsic
value independent of any world view or religious dogma. Conversely,
greed, hatred, lust, etc., are agitating, discomforting experiences
(i.e. //dukkha//) which when present preclude a full realization of
the happiness born of love and equanimity. Thus the realization of
positive feelings and relinquishment of negative feelings are the
major goals and motivations of meditation.
While Nibbana and an end of suffering are the primary goals of
meditation and the realization of positive feelings is a secondary
goal, there are also several tertiary goals which must be achieved
before the higher ones can be fully realized. These are
non-attachment, insight, and concentration.
//Non-attachment// is freedom from craving and freedom from
infatuation for sensual experience. It is not a state of chronic
apathy nor a denial of sense perception existence. Rather it is
psychological liberation from our "enslaving passions and our
addictions to sensual and emotional pleasures." Thus non-attachment is
akin to freedom, equanimity, and serenity.
//Insight// is a word with two meanings both of which are sought in
Buddhist meditation. In its classical Buddhist usage insight
(//vipassana//) means full //awareness// of the three characteristics
of existence, i.e. impermanence, suffering (//dukkha//), and
impersonality. Otherwise stated, this means full realization of the
fact that all things in the universe are temporary and changing; the
human psyche is no exception and thus is not an immortal soul; and as
a consequence suffering is always inevitable, for no state of mind,
pleasant or unpleasant, can endure forever. The word "awareness" is
italicized here to distinguish it from mere conceptual knowledge,
which is usually insufficient to have lasting effect upon one's
feelings and values.
In its psychiatric usage insight means gaining awareness of those
feelings, motives, and values which have previously been unconscious.
Repressed feelings of guilt, fear, lust, and hatred may lurk in the
hidden recesses of our minds and unconsciously shape our lives until
such time as they are brought into awareness. And unless they are
brought into awareness, we cannot effectively deal with them. In
Buddhism this version of insight is included under the heading of
mindfulness and will be discussed later.
//Concentration// involves the ability to keep one's attention
firmly fixed on a given subject for protracted periods of time, thus
overcoming the mind's usual discursive habit of flitting from subject
to subject. As we shall see, concentration is one of the earliest
goals of Buddhist meditation.
* * *
The initial endeavour in Buddhist meditation is to quiet the mind and
enhance detachment and objectivity. For only when the mind has stilled
its perpetual ruminating and has momentarily abandoned its fascination
for sensory experience can it readily become aware of the unconscious
feelings and motivations which shape our thoughts, speech, and
behaviour. Furthermore, only with detached objectivity and its ensuing
insights can we readily confront and renounce unwholesome feelings. On
the other hand, we do not achieve complete calmness and detachment so
long as we harbour unwholesome feelings and unconscious emotional
conflicts. Thus the process is reciprocal: the more we quiet the mind,
the more we gain insight and relinquishment of undesirable feelings.
The more we relinquish such feelings and resolve emotional conflicts,
the more we quiet the mind and approach perfect calmness, detachment,
The obscuring of unconscious feelings by preoccupation with
thoughts and actions is demonstrated in a variety of neurotic
symptoms. Most characteristic are obsessive compulsive reactions;
these occur in persons who are desperately trying to repress
overpowering impulses of fear, anger, lust, or guilt. In order to
achieve this repression they divert nearly all their attention to some
repetitious mental or physical activity, which is conducted in a
compulsive, ritualistic manner. If prevented from performing their
defensive rituals, they often become acutely anxious and even panic as
their unconscious feelings begin to come into awareness. Less severe
examples of the same defensive phenomena are seen in persons who are
chronically anxious and are continuously focusing their worries on
minor concerns of exaggerated importance such as unpaid bills, social
commitments, and alleged physical ills. They, too, rarely relax and
are forever busy with petty chores.
These neurotic symptoms are strikingly similar to an increasingly
common way of life in Western society. Our ever-expanding populations
with their accompanying advertising, mass entertainment, socializing,
industrialization, and emphasis upon success, sensuality, and
popularity have produced an environment in which we are forever
bombarded with an increasing number of sensory and emotional stimuli.
The opportunities for solitude and introspection have diminished to
the point that now solitude is often viewed as either depressing or
abnormal. This is not to assert that the majority of our citizens are
involved in a frantic endeavour to escape from their inner selves.
Such is no doubt the case with many, but there still remains a
sizeable percentage of people who are involved in the same frenzy only
because they have conformed to the social norm and have been lured
into a habitual fascination for television, jazz, sports, and the
countless other forms of readily-available entertainment. Such persons
are not necessarily precluded from relative happiness and emotional
The point to be made, however, is that the conditions of modern
living are such as to pose several obstacles to successful meditation.
These are threefold: psychological, material, and social. These same
obstacles are present to a lesser degree in traditionally Buddhist
cultures and must be considered before discussing meditation itself.
* * *
It is virtually impossible for a busy person with manifold worldly
ambitions to suddenly and voluntarily quiet his mind to the point of
removing all discursive thoughts. In a matter of minutes, if not
seconds, the meditator will find himself either planning, reminiscing,
or day-dreaming. Therefore, before one begins meditation, some amount
of moral development and self-discipline should be achieved. In the
words of one of the Buddha's disciples:
"Those salutary rules of morality proclaimed by the Exalted One,
for what purpose, brother Ananda, has he proclaimed them?"
"Well said, brother Bhadda, well said! Pleasing is your wisdom,
pleasing your insight, excellent is your question! Those salutary
rules of morality proclaimed by the Exalted One, were proclaimed
by him for the sake of cultivating the four foundations of
mindfulness (i.e. meditation)."
In every Buddhist country only a minority of devotees undertake
regular practice. The decision to meditate rests with each individual.
Many wait until their later years when moral development has
progressed and family obligations have been fulfilled. On the other
hand, meditation facilitates wisdom and morality and can be of benefit
to the layman as well as the monk.
In addition to adjusting one's daily routine and cultivating
morality and wisdom, it is often profitable to take a few minutes
before each meditation to put one's mind in a receptive condition.
This may be done by reflecting upon the goals and advantages of
meditation or by reading or reciting some chosen passage of Buddhist
literature or other appropriate writing. If drowsy, a brisk walk may
freshen one's mind and can also allow one to think over and mentally
dispense with matters which might otherwise be distracting. Also, if
one has some necessary chores to perform which can be executed quickly
and easily, doing these beforehand will reduce their interference with
* * *
Much has been written in both ancient and modern literature about the
physical and environmental factors conducive to successful meditation.
Mostly these are matters of common sense, which each person must
determine for himself on the basis of his own individual needs and
predispositions. In the //Visuddhimagga// we read:
//Food//: sweet food suits one, sour food another.
//Climate//: a cool climate suits one, a warm one another. So
when he finds that by using a certain food or by living in a
certain climate he is comfortable, or his unconcentrated mind
becomes concentrated, or his concentrated mind more so, then that
food or that climate is suitable. Any other food or climate is
//Postures//: Walking suits one; standing or sitting or lying
down another. So he should try them, like the abode, for three
days each, and that posture is suitable in which his
unconcentrated mind becomes concentrated or his concentrated mind
more so. Any other should be understood as unsuitable.
Seclusion and isolation from noise are important considerations,
especially for beginners. In an urban environment complete seclusion
is rarely possible, but even relative seclusion is of value. How this
is achieved must be determined by the practitioner's individual
opportunities and circumstances. The time and duration of meditation
will also vary with individual situations. Ideally one should choose a
time when one's mind is alert. Fifteen to forty-five minutes is
recommended for lay beginners, and many persons are of the opinion
that it should be at the same time each day, preferably in the early
morning. A good night's sleep and moderation in eating are valuable,
but one should avoid an excess of fasting and sleep.
The preferred posture in both Asia and the West is the lotus
posture or similar positions of sitting on the ground with legs
folded. A cushion or other padding is desirable for comfort. These
positions furnish maximum physical stability without the need of a
back rest or other devices and are especially suitable if one intends
to remain alert and motionless for protracted periods of time.
However, many Occidentals are unaccustomed to this posture and are
thus unable to assume it or can do so only with discomfort. With
practice this difficulty is usually overcome; otherwise one can
meditate seated on a chair. The eyes either can be closed or resting
on some neutral object such as a blank place on the ground or a simple
geometric shape at a distance of three or four feet.
* * *
In Burma meditation is discussed with interest and enthusiasm. Men
of national fame will take a leave of absence to further their
training, and a practitioner is often greeted with the words, "And how
are you progressing in your meditation? Have you reached such and such
a stage yet?"
The antithesis is true in America, where meditation is poorly
understood; in fact usually it is misunderstood. First of all, the
relinquishment of worldly pursuits for the sake of spiritual and
psychological gain is foreign to the prevailing values of both
capitalist and socialist societies. Secondly, Americans often equate
meditation with hypnotic trance, mysticism, or the occult.
Consequently, the Occidental practitioner may conceal his practice to
avoid social ridicule and religious antagonism. This problem is
compounded by the existence of various quasi-religious and
pseudo-scientific cults which often attract neurotics and social
misfits with promises of occult powers, lasting happiness, and
physical health. Such organizations often claim "esoteric" meditations
and speak favourably (though ignorantly) of Hinduism and Buddhism. Too
often Western impressions of Buddhism are gained either through these
sources and their associated literature or through the unfavourable
descriptions given by pro-Christian books, magazines, and newspapers.
* * *
As we shall see, there are a variety of different meditation practices
each intended for specific individual need. In traditionally Buddhist
countries novices often seek a learned monk or meditation master and
ask to be assigned a specific meditation subject. In the Occident
this is virtually impossible. Competent meditation masters are few and
far between, and those masters who do visit our shores find that
linguistic and cultural barriers prevent them from adequately
appraising a novice's needs. Thus the Western Buddhist must fend for
himself, relying on his own judgement and proceeding sometimes by
trial and error. Here, again, we should note the words of the
For when a very skilful archer, who is working to split a hair,
actually splits the hair on one occasion, he discerns the modes
of the position of his feet, the bow, the bowstring, and the
arrow thus: "I split the hair as I stood thus, with the bow thus,
the bowstring thus, the arrow thus." From then on he recaptures
those same modes and repeats the splitting of the hair without
fail. So too the meditator must discern such modes as that of
suitable food, etc. thus: "I attained this after eating this
food, attending on such a person, in such a lodging, in this
posture, at this time." In this way, when that (absorption) is
lost, he will be able to recapture those modes and renew the
absorption, or while familiarizing himself with it he will be
able to repeat that absorption again and again.
Not only do meditation requirements differ from person to person,
they also differ for the same person at different times. In the words
of the Buddha:
"Monks, suppose a man wanted to make a small fire burn up, and he
put wet grass on it, put wet cowdung on it, put wet sticks on it,
sprinkled it with water, and scattered dust on it, would that man
be able to make the small fire burn up?" -- "No, venerable
sir." -- "So too, monks, when the mind is slack, that is not the
time to develop the tranquillity enlightenment factor, the
concentration enlightenment factor, and the equanimity
enlightenment factor. Why is that? Because a slack mind cannot
well be roused by those states. When the mind is slack, that is
the time to develop the investigation-of-states enlightenment
factor, the energy enlightenment factor, and the happiness
enlightenment factor. Why is that? Because a slack mind can well
be roused by those states.
"Monks, suppose a man wanted to extinguish a great mass of fire,
and he put dry grass on it, ... and did not scatter dust on it,
would that man be able to extinguish that great mass of fire?" --
"No, venerable sir." -- "So too, monks, when the mind is
agitated, that is not the time to develop the
investigation-of-states enlightenment factor, the energy
enlightenment factor, or the happiness enlightenment factor. Why
is that? Because an agitated mind cannot well be quieted by those
states. When the mind is agitated, that is the time to develop
the tranquillity enlightenment factor, the concentration
enlightenment factor, and the equanimity enlightenment factor.
Why is that? Because an agitated mind can well be quieted by
There is no prescribed duration for the amount of time one should
spend in meditation. The popular Western notion of Buddhist monks
spending a lifetime with nearly every available moment dedicated to
meditative seclusion is not supported by the recorded teachings of the
Buddha nor the accounts of the daily activities of the Buddha and his
followers. Nor is this the case with Theravada monks today, except
during temporary periods of intensive training. As with all other
aspects of meditation, the amount of time must be varied according to
individual needs and circumstances.
One final point must be made before proceeding to the techniques of
meditation. It is simply this: //Meditation requires patience,
persistence, and effort. For one who practises less than several hours
a day, lasting and notable progress can only be achieved by months, if
not years, of endeavour. There are no short cuts or magical
formulae//. Consequently, the aspiring practitioner should not expect
quick results and before starting should decide if he sincerely
intends to put forth the necessary time and effort. A decision not to
meditate, however, in no way precludes one from progressing towards
the same goals of insight, non-attachment, concentration, etc. Their
full realization requires formal meditation practice, but relative
success may be acquired at a slower pace through cultivation of one's
moral and intellectual faculties.
* * *
The Techniques of Meditation
The seventh step of the Noble Eightfold Path is termed right
mindfulness, also called the four foundations of mindfulness and
Satipatthana. The three terms are synonymous and encompass not only
the most important aspects of Theravada meditation but also one of the
most unique and important features of all Buddhism. A full explanation
of mindfulness or Satipatthana is given in the Satipatthana Sutta,
which appears twice in the Pali Canon. The Buddha begins the discourse
This is the only way, monks, for the purification of beings, for
the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of
suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the
attainment of Nibbana, namely the Four Foundations of
This same message he repeated frequently:
Those for whom you have sympathy, O monks, those who deem it fit
to listen to you -- friends and companions, kinsmen and relatives
-- they should be encouraged, introduced to and established in
the four foundations of mindfulness.
There are three taints (//asava// or cankers), O monks: the taint
of sensuality, the taint of desire for renewed existence, and the
taint of ignorance. For eliminating these three taints, O monks,
the four foundations of mindfulness should be cultivated.
This same emphasis has persisted even to the present era in some
sections of the Buddhist world, as described by the Venerable
The great importance of the Discourse on Mindfulness (i.e. the
Satipatthana Sutta) has never been lost to the Buddhists of the
Theravada tradition. In Ceylon, even when the knowledge and
practice of the Dhamma was at its lowest ebb through centuries of
foreign domination, the Sinhala Buddhists never forgot the
Satipatthana Sutta. Memorizing the Sutta has been an unfailing
practice among the Buddhists, and even today in Ceylon there are
large numbers who can recite the Sutta from memory. It is a
common sight to see on full-moon days devotees who are observing
the eight precepts, engaged in community recital of the Sutta.
Buddhists are intent on hearing this Discourse even in the last
moments of their lives; and at the bed-side of a dying Buddhist
either monks or laymen recite this venerated text.
Thus it seems a paradox that most Western texts on Buddhism merely
list right mindfulness as one of the steps of the Eightfold Path and
say little more except to redefine it by such terms as "right
contemplation" and "right reflection." The reason is probably twofold.
First, Satipatthana cannot be as concisely explained as the other
seven steps; for it is not a single step but includes instead several
distinct meditation exercises. Second, to be properly understood the
Satipatthana Sutta must be examined from a psychological and
psychiatric viewpoint. Most scholars of comparative religion are
accustomed to approaching their studies from religious, ethical, or
philosophical frames of reference, but none of these orientations
apply here. If this sutta alone was to be filed on the shelves of a
public library, it would most aptly be placed adjacent to the archives
of eclectic psychiatry and would have little in common with the
classic writings of religion and philosophy. Even psychology would not
be an appropriate title, for the sutta is not concerned with any
theoretical or conceptual interpretation of the mind. It deals only
with the empirical facts of conscious experience and prescribes the
techniques for mental development. It is, therefore, not surprising
that many Occidentals who have scanned the pages of the Satipatthana
Sutta have judged it confusing, meaningless, and sometimes morbid.
In addition to the two occurrences of the Satipatthana Sutta,
condensed versions of the same teaching appear several times in the
The four parts of the four foundations of mindfulness are:
contemplation of the body, contemplation of feelings, contemplation of
mind, and contemplation of mental objects. The body contemplation is
itself divided into six parts -- breathing, postures, clear
comprehension of action, repulsiveness, material elements, and the
* * *
Mindfulness of Breathing
The initial endeavour in Buddhist meditation is to calm and quiet the
mind so that it is fully alert but has temporarily diminished the
quantity of daydreaming, planning, reminiscing, and all other forms of
verbal and visual thinking. This goal can only be approached
gradually, and therefore the beginner should start his practice by
focusing his attention on some quiet, readily available, rhythmic
process. Respiratory movements are ideal for this purpose. Thus the
first exercise of the sutta begins:
Herein, monks, a monk having gone to the forest, to the foot of a
tree, or to an empty place, sits down cross-legged, keeps his
body erect and his mindfulness alert. Just mindful he breathes in
and mindful he breathes out. Breathing in a long breath, he knows
"I breathe in a long breath"; breathing out a long breath, he
knows "I breathe out a long breath"; breathing in a short breath,
he knows "I breathe in a short breath"; breathing out a short
breath, he knows "I breathe out a short breath." "Conscious of
the whole (breath-) body, I shall breathe in," thus he trains
himself. "Conscious of the whole (breath-) body, I shall breathe
out," thus he trains himself. "Calming the bodily function (of
breathing), I shall breathe in," thus he trains himself. "Calming
the bodily function (of breathing), I shall breathe out," thus he
trains himself. As a skilful turner or his apprentice, making a
long turn, knows "I am making a long turn," or making a short
turn, knows "I am making a short turn," just so the monk
breathing in a long breath, knows "I breathe in a long breath";
breathing out a long breath, he knows "I breathe out a long
The practitioner endeavours to keep his mind focused only on the
act of breathing itself and not to think about breathing as a subject
of intellectual contemplation. In other words, one attempts to give
full attention to the reality of immediate experience and not become
involved in speculations or contemplations //about// reality.
The theory is quite simple but the practice most difficult. In a
typical case, at the beginning of his meditation the novice directs
his attention solely to the process of breathing. Then after a few
seconds, he inadvertently begins to think, "So far I am doing all
right. My mind hasn't strayed from its subject." But at this very
moment he has strayed from his subject. For now he is not
concentrating but thinking about concentrating. If he does not catch
himself (and he probably will not), the stream of consciousness will
proceed something as follows: "My mind hasn't strayed from its
subject. I'm doing better than yesterday. I wonder why? Maybe it's
because I've finished all of my letter writing. I wonder if Marvin
will answer the letter I sent him? He hasn't.... Oh, Oh! I've gotten
off the subject. I'd better get back to it. But I'm not really back;
I'm just thinking about it. I wonder how long it will take me...." And
so on it goes, day after day, week after week until the practitioner
begins to wonder if he is not seeking the impossible. Yet the fact
remains that many thousands living today have achieved this degree of
concentration. With little short of amazement, the Western novice
reads the Venerable Nyanaponika Thera's remarks concerning Burmese
Satipatthana training: "Three to four hours of continuous mindfulness,
i.e. without unnoticed breaks, are regarded as the minimum for a
beginner undergoing a course of strict practice."
The most widely practised form of the breathing meditation is
focusing attention at the nostrils where one feels the faint pressure
of the ebb and flow of the breath. This technique is not mentioned in
any of the recorded teachings of the Buddha or his disciples but has
been popular at least since the time of Buddhaghosa in the fifth
century A.D. In the words of Buddhaghosa:
This is the simile of the gate-keeper: just as a gate-keeper does
not examine people inside and outside the town, asking "Who are
you? Where have you come from? Where are you going? What have you
got in your hand?" -- for those people are not his concern -- ,
but does examine each man as he arrives at the gate, so too, the
incoming breaths that have gone inside and the outgoing breaths
that have gone outside are not this monk's concern, but they are
his concern each time they arrive at the (nostril) gate
And again, in the simile of the saw, the woodcutter's attention is
focused only at the point of contact between the saw and the wood:
As the saw's teeth, so the in-breaths and out-breaths. As the
man's mindfulness, established by the saw's teeth where they
touch the tree trunk, without his giving attention to the saw's
teeth as they approach and recede, though they are not unknown to
him as they do so, and so he manifests effort, carries out a task
and achieves an effect, so too the bhikkhu sits, having
established mindfulness at the nose tip or on the upper lip,
without giving attention to the in-breaths and out-breaths as
they approach and recede, though they are not unknown to him as
they do so, and he manifests effort, carries out a task and
achieves an effect.
Modifications of the breathing meditation can be applied to suit
individual requirements. In the early stages of practice many persons
find that mentally counting the breaths enhances concentration. In
these instances one is advised not to count less than five or more
than ten. Upon reaching ten the counting starts over. By going beyond
ten, the counting rather than the breathing is likely to become the
subject of one's attention:
Herein, this clansman who is a beginner should first give
attention to this meditation subject by counting. And when
counting, he should not stop short of five or go beyond ten or
make any break in the series. By stopping short of five his
thoughts get excited in the cramped space, like a herd of cattle
shut in a cramped pen. By going beyond ten his thoughts take the
number (rather than the breaths) for their support.
But how long is he to go on counting? Until, without counting,
mindfulness remains settled on the in-breaths and out-breaths as
its object. For counting is simply a device for settling
mindfulness on the in-breaths and out-breaths as object by
cutting off the external dissipation of applied thoughts.
In the initial stages of practice one merely observes the process
of breathing without attempting to change its rate or depth. Later, as
concentration is achieved, the breathing is gradually and deliberately
slowed in order to further quiet the mind. There is, however, no
attempt to stop respiration as in certain yogic practices:
When his gross in-breaths and out-breaths have ceased, his
consciousness occurs with the sign of the subtle in-breaths and
out-breaths as its object. And when that has ceased, it goes on
occurring with the successively subtler signs as its object. How?
Suppose a man struck a bronze bell with a big iron bar and at
once a loud sound arose, his consciousness would occur with the
gross sound as its object; then, when the gross sound had ceased,
it would occur afterwards with the sign of the subtle sound as
its object; and when that had ceased, it would go on occurring
with the sign of the successively subtler sound as its
It was a Burmese meditation teacher, Venerable U Narada (Mingun
Sayadaw), who in the early part of this century, stressed the
application of mindfulness of breathing as a means of cultivating
direct awareness. It was he who gave the first strong impetus to the
revival of Satipatthana meditation in contemporary Burma. He passed
away in 1955 at the age of 87 and is said by many to have realized
A variation of the breathing meditation was developed by another
Burmese monk, the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw, who was a pupil of the
Venerable U Narada. His technique involves focusing attention upon the
respiratory movements of the abdomen instead of the sensation at the
nostrils. This system has become popular in several parts of southern
Asia. A revived interest in meditation has developed in that section
of the world, especially in Burma, where numerous training centres
have been established, and thousands of monks and lay people have
During meditation, when the practitioner finds that his mind has
strayed from its subject, there should be no attempt to suppress or
forcibly remove the extraneous thoughts. Rather he should briefly take
mental note of them and objectively label them with some appropriate
term. This may be done by thinking to himself "planning,"
"remembering," "imagining," etc., as the case may be. Then he should
return to his original meditation subject. However, if after several
tries the unwanted thoughts persist, he should temporarily take the
thoughts themselves as the meditation subject. In so doing their
intensity will diminish, and he can then return to his original
subject. This same technique can be used for distracting noises. It
can also be used for feelings of anger or frustration, which may
develop as the result of unwanted thoughts or distractions. In these
instances the meditator should think to himself "noise," or
As the mind becomes quiet and verbal thinking begins to diminish,
other stimuli come into awareness. Among these are sensations, such as
itches and minor pains, which are always present but go unnoticed
because attention is directed elsewhere. The same may occur with
emotions such as worry or fear, and these we shall discuss in detail
later. Pictures or visual scenes may arise and are often so vivid as
to be termed visions or hallucinations. They often have the appearance
of dreams or distant memories and differ from thoughts in that the
meditator usually finds himself a passive spectator not knowing when
such scenes will arise or what forms they will take. The meditator
should first attempt to ignore these sensations, feelings, and
pictures. This failing, he should label them "itching," "fear,"
"picture," etc., and lastly make them his meditation subject until
To be successful, meditation should not be an unpleasant
experience. Strain and tension should be minimized. Therefore, if the
practitioner finds himself becoming tense, irritable, or fatigued
during meditation, he may wish to terminate the practice until he
acquires a better state of mind.
* * *
Mindfulness of Postures and of Actions
Following mindfulness of breathing, the next exercise prescribed in
the Satipatthana Sutta is the development of the same clear awareness
towards one's daily actions. Thus the Buddha continues:
And further, monks, a monk knows when he is going "I am going";
he knows when he is standing "I am standing"; he knows when he is
sitting "I am sitting"; he knows when he is lying down "I am
lying down"; or just as his body is disposed so he knows it.
And further, monks, a monk, in going forward and back, applies
clear comprehension; in looking straight on and looking away, he
applies clear comprehension; in bending and in stretching, he
applies clear comprehension; in wearing robes and carrying the
bowl, he applies clear comprehension; in eating, drinking,
chewing and savouring, he applies clear comprehension; in
attending to the calls of nature, he applies clear comprehension;
in walking, in standing, in sitting, in falling asleep, in
walking, in speaking and in keeping silence, heapplies clear
Here we note a similarity between early Buddhism and Zen. Or as the
Zen master would say: "In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit.
Above all, don't wobble."
Usually while dressing, eating, working, etc., we act on habit and
give little attention to our physical actions. Our minds are
preoccupied with a variety of other concerns. In Satipatthana,
however, the practitioner devotes himself entirely to the situation at
hand. Persons interested in meditation are often heard to complain,
"But I don't have time to meditate." However, the form of mindfulness
we are now discussing can be practised at all times and in all
situations regardless of one's occupation or social and religious
As with breathing meditation, the primary intent of this discipline
is to prepare one's mind for advanced stages of psychological
development. However, a valuable by-product is that it can greatly
increase one's proficiency at physical skills. In Japan, Zen
practitioners have utilized it to achieve mastery in swordsmanship,
archery, and judo. The Buddha himself is quoted: "Mindfulness, I
declare, O monks, is helpful everywhere." And again:
Whosoever, monks, has cultivated and regularly practised
mindfulness of the body, to whatever state realizable by direct
knowledge he may bend his mind for reaching it by direct
knowledge, he will then acquire proficiency in that very
For one engaged in strict monastic training, mindfulness of actions
becomes a more formalized practice. Breathing and walking meditations
often are alternated for periods of about thirty minutes each. In
walking the monk paces slowly along a level stretch of ground and
directs his attention fully to the movement of each foot, thinking:
"lift" -- "forward" -- "down" -- "lift" -- "forward" -- "down." This
alternation of breathing and walking practice may last sixteen hours
each day for a period of six or more weeks.
* * *
Repulsiveness, Material Components, and Cemetery Meditations
The last of the body meditations are designed to overcome one's
narcissistic infatuation for one's own body, to abandon unrealistic
desires for immortality, and to destroy sensual lust. To achieve these
ends two principles are employed. First is vividly and repeatedly
impressing upon one's mind the temporary, changing, and compounded
nature of the body. Secondly one establishes and persistently
reinforces a series of negative associations to the usually sensual
features of the body. This latter process employs the same principles
as behaviour therapy and Pavlovian conditioning. However, Satipatthana
differs from Pavlovian and behaviour therapy in that the conditioning
is established by the meditator himself instead of an external agent.
Thus the Satipatthana Sutta continues:
And further, monks, a monk reflects on this very body enveloped
by the skin and full of manifold impurity, from the soles up, and
from the top of the head hair down, thinking thus: "There are in
this body hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin,
flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidney, heart, liver, diaphragm,
spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, gorge, faeces, bile,
phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, nasal
mucus, synovial fluid, urine."
Just as if there were a double-mouthed provision bag full of
various kinds of grain such as hill paddy, paddy, green gram,
cow-peas, sesamum, and husked rice, and a man with sound eyes,
having opened that bag, were to take stock of the contents thus:
"This is hill paddy, this is paddy, this is green gram, this is
cow-pea, this is sesamum, this is husked rice." Just so, monks, a
monk reflects on this very body, enveloped by the skin and full
of manifold impurity, from the soles up, and from the top of the
head hair down, thinking thus: "There are in this body hair of
the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews,
bones, marrow, kidney, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs,
intestines, mesentery, gorge, faeces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood,
sweat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, nasal mucus, synovial fluid,
And further, monks, a monk reflects on this very body however it
be placed or disposed, by way of the material elements: "There
are in this body the element of earth, the element of water, the
element of fire (caloricity), the element of air."
Just as if, monks, a clever cow-butcher or his apprentice, having
slaughtered a cow and divided it into portions, should be sitting
at the junction of four high roads, in the same way, a monk
reflects on this very body, as it is placed or disposed, by way
of the material elements: "There are in this body the elements of
earth, water, fire and air."
This last paragraph is explained in the //Visuddhimagga//:
Just as the butcher, while feeding the cow, bringing it to the
shambles, keeping it tied up after bringing it there,
slaughtering it, and seeing it slaughtered and dead, does not
lose the perception "cow" so long as he has not carved it up and
divided it into parts; but when he has divided it up and is
sitting there he loses the perception "cow" and the perception
"meat" occurs; he does not think "I am selling cow" or "They are
carrying cow away," but rather he thinks "I am selling meat" or
"They are carrying meat away"; so too this monk, while still a
foolish ordinary person -- both formerly as a layman and as one
gone forth into homelessness -- , does not lose the perception
"living being" or "man" or "person" so long as he does not, by
resolution of the compact into elements, review this body,
however placed, however disposed, as consisting of elements. But
when he does review it as consisting of elements, he loses the
perception "living being" and his mind establishes itself upon
The last of the body meditations are the nine cemetery meditations.
Numbers 1, 2, 5, and 9 respectively are quoted here. The remaining
five are similar and deal with intermediate stages of decomposition:
And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body dead, one, two or
three days, swollen, blue and festering, thrown in the charnel
ground, he then applies this perception to his own body thus:
"Verily, also my own body is of the same nature; such it will
become and will not escape it."
And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the
charnel ground, being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs,
jackals or by different kinds of worms, he then applies this
perception to his own body thus: "Verily, also my own body is of
the same nature; such it will become and will not escape it."
And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the
charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton without flesh and blood,
held together by the tendons ...
And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the
charnel ground and reduced to bones, gone rotten and become dust,
he then applies this perception to his own body thus: "Verily,
also my own body is of the same nature; such it will become and
will not escape it."
Similar meditations on the digestion and decomposition of food are
listed in other sections of the Pali scriptures for the purpose of
freeing the practitioner from undue cravings for food:
When a monk devotes himself to this perception of repulsiveness
in nutriment, his mind retreats, retracts and recoils from
craving for flavours. He nourishes himself with nutriment without
While these meditations are intended to eliminate passion and
craving they carry the risk of making one morbid and depressed.
Therefore the Buddha recommended:
If in the contemplation of the body, bodily agitation, or mental
lassitude or distraction should arise in the meditator, then he
should turn his mind to a gladdening subject. Having done so, joy
will arise in him.
A cartoon in an American medical magazine shows four senior medical
students standing together. Three are engaged in active conversation.
Only the remaining one turns his head to take notice of a pretty
nurse. The caption beneath the cartoon reads: "Guess which one has
//not// done twelve pelvic examinations today." It is doubtful that
many persons outside of the medical profession will appreciate the
meaning, but to medical students and interns it speaks a reality.
During his months of training in obstetrics and gynaecology the
medical trainee must spend many hours engaged in examining and
handling the most repulsive aspects of female genitals. As a result he
finds the female body becoming less attractive and his sexual urges
diminishing. During my own years as a medical student and intern, this
observation was repeatedly confirmed by the comments of my co-workers,
both married and single. As we have seen, the same principle is
utilized in the sections of the Discourse on repulsiveness and the
Other aspects of scientific and medical training can produce
results similar to those sought in the latter three body meditations.
Chemistry, biochemistry, and histology foster an objective way of
viewing the body which is virtually identical to the contemplation of
elements. Anatomy, of course, is similar to the contemplation of
repulsiveness. And in hospital training the persistent encounter with
old age, debilitation, and death continuously reinforces the words of
the cemetery meditations: "Verily, also my own body is of the same
nature; such it will become and will not escape it." Similarly, in
order to acquire a vivid mental image of the cemetery meditations,
Buddhist monks occasionally visit graveyards to behold corpses in
various stages of decay. However, such experiences bear fruit only
if one takes advantage of them and avoids the temptation to ignore and
* * *
Successful application of the Satipatthana meditations requires
developed concentration, which in turn necessitates many hours of
practice. There are, however, a variety of discursive meditations and
related practices which the lay devotee can utilize to notable
advantage. Some of these are not meditations in the strict sense of
the word and are commonplace in virtually all religions.
A hymn, a poem, a passage from the Dhamma, or a passage from any
inspiring literature can temporarily elevate the mind and serve to
cultivate wholesome feelings. Many Buddhists make a habit of setting
aside a few minutes each day to reflect upon the Teaching or to either
read or recite from memory some favoured passage of the Dhammapada.
For some, similar benefits may be gained from an evening stroll, a
period of solitude in forest or desert, or a pause for contemplative
relaxation in the midst of a hurried day. These latter three serve the
added advantage of allowing one to reflect upon one's values and
Perhaps the most popular discursive meditation practised by
Theravadin Buddhists is the meditation on love (//metta//). It is
often recited in the morning in order to create a wholesome mood for
the rest of the day. There are several versions, one of which is
My mind is temporarily pure, free from all impurities; free from
lust, hatred and ignorance; free from all evil thoughts.
My mind is pure and clean. Like a polished mirror is my stainless
As a clean and empty vessel is filled with pure water I now fill
my clean heart and pure mind with peaceful and sublime thoughts
of boundless love, overflowing compassion, sympathetic joy, and
I have now washed my mind and heart of anger, ill will, cruelty,
violence, jealousy, envy, passion, and aversion.
May I be well and happy!
May I be free from suffering, disease, grief, worry, and anger!
May I be strong, self-confident, healthy, and peaceful!
Now I charge every particle of my system, from head to foot, with
thoughts of boundless love and compassion. I am the embodiment of
love and compassion. My whole body is saturated with love and
compassion. I am a stronghold, a fortress of love and compassion.
What I have gained I now give unto others.
Think of all your near and dear ones at home, individually or
collectively, and fill them with thoughts of loving-kindness and
wish them peace and happiness, repeating, "May all beings be well
and happy!" Then think of all seen and unseen beings, living near
and far, men, women, animals and all living beings, in the East,
West, North, South, above and below, and radiate boundless
loving-kindness, without any enmity or obstruction, towards all,
irrespective of class, creed, colour or sex.
Think that all are your brothers and sisters, fellow-beings in the
ocean of life. You identify yourself with all. You are one with all.
Repeat ten times -- //May all be well and happy// -- and wish them
all peace and happiness.
Another useful meditation for laymen is as follows:
May I be generous and helpful!
May I be well-disciplined and refined in manners!
May I be pure and clean in all my dealings!
May my thoughts, words and deeds be pure!
May I not be selfish and self-possessive but selfless and
May I be able to sacrifice my pleasures for the sake of others!
May I be wise and be able to see things as they truly are!
May I see the light of Truth and lead others from darkness to
May I be enlightened and be able to enlighten others!
May I be able to give the benefit of my knowledge to others!
May I be energetic, vigorous, and persevering!
May I strive diligently until I achieve my goal!
May I be fearless in facing dangers and courageously surmount all
May I be able to serve others to the best of my ability!
May I be ever patient!
May I be able to bear and forbear the wrongs of others!
May I ever be tolerant and see the good and beautiful in all!
May I ever be truthful and honest!
May I ever be kind, friendly, and compassionate!
May I be able to regard all as my brothers and sisters and be one
May I ever be calm, serene, unruffled, and peaceful!
May I gain a balanced mind!
May I have perfect equanimity!
In the mind of a devout Buddhist, Gotama Buddha symbolizes the
embodiment of one's highest spiritual ideals. Consequently, the Buddha
is often taken as a meditation subject.
As long as (the meditator) recollects the special qualities of
the Buddha in this way, "For this and this reason the Blessed One
is accomplished, ... for this and this reason he is blessed,"
then on that occasion his mind is not obsessed by greed, or
obsessed by hate, or obsessed by delusion; his mind has rectitude
on that occasion, being inspired by the Perfect One.
When a noble disciple contemplates upon the Enlightened One, at
that time his mind is not enwrapped by lust nor by hatred nor by
delusion and at that time his mind is rightly directed towards
the Tathagata. And with a rightly directed mind the noble
disciple gains enthusiasm for the goal, enthusiasm for the
Dhamma, gains the delight derived from the Dhamma. In him thus
delighted, joy arises; to one joyfully minded, body and mind
become calm; calmed in body and mind, he feels at ease; and if at
ease, the mind finds concentration.
The hazard in meditating on the Buddha, however, is that the
unsophisticated meditator may not be aware of the psychological
reasons for this exercise. In such a case the practice is likely to
become a devotional one similar to those of non-Buddhist religions.
* * *
Mindfulness of Feelings, Consciousness, and Mental Objects
Some time ago I became acquainted with a Caucasian Buddhist who for
several years had made a daily practice of meditating on love. He
confided that he had chosen this meditation subject because he was
prone to frequent outbreaks of anger and chronic resentment; a "hate
problem" he termed it. But despite years of meditation, the hatred had
not diminished; the meditation had failed. Why? As our acquaintance
broadened the answer became apparent. My friend had several
poorly-concealed intellectual and emotional deficiencies. He never
once revealed that he acknowledged these; on the contrary, he
displayed frequent attempts to bolster his self-image. Such attempts
were invariably doomed to frustration, especially when his
accomplishments and social poise were contrasted with those of others.
By reacting with anger towards others he avoided the unpleasantry of
looking at himself. In other words, his anger was a psychological
defense through which he sought to maintain an illusion of
self-esteem. Thus unconsciously he did not wish to relinquish his
anger. To do so would be too painful, and to attack the anger by
meditating on love was futile, for anger was only a symptom. The real
problem lay much deeper.
To cure such hatred requires three things. First one must become
aware of the existence of one's inadequacies and their accompanying
humiliations; in other words, what is unconscious must become
conscious. Second one must totally confront such unpleasant feelings
and acknowledge them in their entirety. And finally one must
relinquish the egotistical desire for self-exaltation. This last
requirement is best achieved by objectively analyzing the illusion of
self and gaining full appreciation for the changing and compounded
nature of the personality. In other words, one must acquire insight of
both types discussed above under the goals of meditation. How can this
Awareness of unconscious feelings is rarely obtained through
logical deductions or rational explanations. A person who harbours
these feelings will either refuse to believe what he is told or will
come to accept it only as so much factual information devoid of
emotional significance. An excellent illustration is the case of a
forty-year-old woman who sought psychiatric help for severe feelings
of fear, guilt, and depression. On examining her case it became
apparent that her problem was largely due to repressed feelings of
hatred for her mother, a very dominating and selfish woman. After much
discussion the patient finally deduced that she indeed did hate her
mother, and for the next two months she spoke knowingly and learnedly
about her repressed hatred and resultant symptoms. Yet she improved
not one bit. Then one day she entered the office shaking with rage and
cried, "God, I hate that witch!" There was never a more vivid example
of the difference between knowing and experiencing. Improvement
This example is typical of many psychiatric case histories. One sees
patients who speak in the most erudite manner about Freud and Jung and
adeptly employ psychiatric terminology. Yet this intellectual verbiage
is often a subtle defense against facing their true feelings.
Conversely, many unsophisticated and unlearned patients are quick to
achieve insight and make rapid progress. Consequently, the skilful
psychiatrist makes limited use of technical jargon and theoretical
concepts. He asks questions often but answers few. This same technique
is employed in Burmese and Zen meditation centers. The student is
discouraged from making philosophical inquiries and is told: "Pursue
your meditation, and soon you will see."
You may, Ananda, also keep in mind this marvellous and wonderful
quality of the Tathagata (the Buddha): knowingly arise feelings
in the Tathagata, knowingly they continue, knowingly they cease;
knowingly arise perceptions in the Tathagata, knowingly they
continue, knowingly they cease; knowingly arise thoughts in the
Tathagata, knowingly they continue, knowingly they cease. This,
Ananda, you may also keep in mind as a marvellous and wonderful
quality of the Tathagata.
In his earlier years Sigmund Freud experimented with hypnosis. He
found it a useful tool in revealing unconscious feelings and conflicts
to the //therapist//, but it was of little value to the patient. The
reason was that hypnotic trance precluded the patient from consciously
confronting and resolving his problems. Therefore, Freud abandoned
hypnosis in preference to the now standard procedures of psychiatry
and psycho-analysis. These same findings and conclusions have often
been repeated by later researchers and clinicians. Similarly, the
Buddha rejected the use of trance states so common in yogic practice
and developed a means by which people can acquire insight without the
aid of a therapist or psychedelic drugs. Two approaches are employed.
The easier approach to insight is one which both monks and laymen
can use regardless of meditative development. It consists in
developing the habit of reflecting on one's feelings from time to time
and detecting the motives which produce seemingly spontaneous words
and deeds. "Why did I say that?" "Why am I tense when I meet so and
so?" "I find myself disliking such and such a character in this novel.
Why is that? Of whom does he remind me?"
For those who have progressed in the breathing meditation or made
similar progress at quieting the mind, unconscious feelings become
more readily accessible. As one begins to shut out sensory
distractions and halt discursive thinking, more subtle sensations come
into awareness. At first there may be only a vague feeling of anxiety,
some unexplained sense of guilt, or a feeling of anger. Without
recourse to verbal whys or hows and avoiding any speculative
conjecture the meditator directs full attention to the feeling alone.
He brings only the feeling itself into full awareness and allows no
interfering thoughts, though later he will benefit by reflecting on it
in a contemplative manner. It is at this point that repressed memories
and emotional conflicts may come into awareness. Here also, meditation
can be potentially dangerous for those whose personality structures
are loosely constituted or who have repressed emotional problems of
severe intensity. Usually, however, in these latter instances one's
unconscious defenses will intervene and the meditator will terminate
the practice because he feels anxious, or "can't concentrate," or
"just quit because I felt like it."
Thus the last three sections of the Satipatthana Sutta read as
//Mindfulness of feelings// -- the second of the four foundations
Herein, monks, a monk when experiencing a pleasant feeling knows,
"I experience a pleasant feeling"; when experiencing a painful
feeling, he knows, "I experience a painful feeling"; when
experiencing a neutral feeling, he knows, "I experience a neutral
//Mindfulness of consciousness// -- the third of the four
foundations of mindfulness:
Herein, monks, a monk knows the consciousness with lust, as with
lust; the consciousness without lust, as without lust; the
consciousness with hate, as with hate; the consciousness without
hate, as without hate; the consciousness with ignorance, as with
ignorance; the consciousness without ignorance, as without
ignorance; the shrunken (i.e. rigid and indolent) state of
consciousness as the shrunken state; the distracted (i.e.
restless) state of consciousness as the distracted state; the
developed state of consciousness as the developed state; the
undeveloped state of consciousness as the undeveloped state....
//Mindfulness of mental objects// -- the fourth of the four
foundations of mindfulness:
Herein, monks, when sense-desire is present, a monk knows, "There
is sense-desire in me," or when sense-desire is not present, he
knows, "There is no sense-desire in me." He knows how the arising
of the non-arisen sense-desire comes to be; he knows how the
abandoning of the arisen sense-desire comes to be; and he knows
how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned sense-desire
comes to be.
When anger is present, he knows, "There is anger in me."... (as
above for sense-desire) ... When sloth and torpor are present ...
When agitation and worry are present ... When doubt is present
... (as above)."
Herein, monks, when the enlightenment-factor of mindfulness is
present, the monk knows, "The enlightenment-factor of mindfulness
is in me," or when the enlightenment-factor of mindfulness is
absent, he knows, "The enlightenment-factor of mindfulness is not
in me"; and he knows how the arising of the non-arisen
enlightenment-factor of mindfulness comes to be; and how the
perfection in the development of the arisen enlightenment-factor
of mindfulness comes to be.
This paragraph on mindfulness is then repeated in the same wording
for the remaining six enlightenment-factors, i.e. investigation of
reality, energy, happiness, tranquillity, concentration, and
equanimity. These seven bear the title "enlightenment-factors" as they
are said to be the essential states for the realization of Nibbana.
Leaving the Satipatthana Sutta for a moment, we note another of the
"Is there a way, monks, by which a monk without recourse to
faith, to cherished opinions, to tradition, to specious
reasoning, to the approval of views pondered upon, may declare
the Final Knowledge (of Sainthood)?... There is such a way, O
monks. And which is it? Herein, monks, a monk has seen a form
with his eyes, and if greed, hate or delusion are in him, he
knows: 'There is in me greed, hate, delusion'; and if greed, hate
or delusion are not in him, he knows: 'There is no greed, hate,
delusion in me.' Further, monks, a monk has heard a sound,
smelled an odour, tasted a flavour, felt a tactile sensation,
cognized a mental object (idea), and if greed, hate or delusion
are in him, he knows: 'There is in me greed, hate, delusion'; and
if greed, hate or delusion are not in him, he knows: 'There is in
me no greed, hate, delusion.' And if he thus knows, O monks, are
these ideas such as to be known by recourse to faith, to
cherished opinions, to tradition, to specious reasoning, to the
approval of views pondered upon?"
"Certainly not, Lord."
"Are these not rather ideas to be known after wisely realizing
them by experience?"
"That is so, Lord."
"This, monks, is a way by which a monk, without recourse to
faith, to cherished opinions, to tradition, to specious
reasoning, to the approval of views pondered upon, may declare
the Final Knowledge (of Sainthood)."
Thus far we have discussed how one achieves insight as the first
step towards eliminating unwholesome feelings and motivations.
Following insight one must totally confront these newly discovered
feelings and acknowledge them fully and impartially. One must see
their true nature devoid of any emotional reactions (such as guilt or
craving) and devoid of preconceived notions about their good or evil
qualities. In other words, complete attention is focused on the
feeling itself in order that one may examine it objectively in its
naked reality, free of any cultural and personal assumptions as to its
desirability. This achievement results from the Satipatthana practices
As an example, in a typical case of anger one is cognizant of being
angry, yet a much greater amount of attention is directed outward.
Most typically the angry mind quickly perceives and dwells upon the
objectionable and offensive features of some other person (or
persons). And in so doing indignation, resentment, and anger increase.
These objectionable features of the other person may be fancied,
exaggerated, or real, but in any case, were it not for the anger such
preoccupations would not have arisen. The Buddhist approach is to turn
attention to the real problem -- the anger. One reflects, "I am
angry."..."I am doing this because I am angry."..."I am having these
thoughts because I am angry." In so doing one avoids dwelling on
alleged injustices, etc., and thereby does not intensify the hatred.
This reflection continues, "This is anger." ... "It is real; it is
intense." ... "It is a feeling." ... "It has no reality outside of my
own consciousness." ... "Like all feelings, it will soon diminish."
... "I experience it but am not compelled to act on it." With practice
one finds that though anger still arises, its effect is diminished.
Its influence is no longer as strong. In the case of painful emotions,
such as humiliation, it is advantageous to also reflect, "This is most
painful." ... "I do not like it; but I can confront it." ... "I can
endure it." ... "Even though it is unpleasant, I can tolerate it." In
instances of greed and passion it is often fruitful to consider "Is
this truly pleasurable?" ... "Is it rewarding?" ... "Am I now happy?"
It should be noted that this important technique can also be
employed in the course of daily living without unusual powers of
concentration or formal meditation practice.
In the words of the Buddha:
There are three kinds of feeling, O monks: pleasant feeling,
unpleasant feeling, and neutral feeling. For the full
understanding of these three kinds of feelings, O monks, the four
foundations of mindfulness should be cultivated.
In pleasant feelings, monks, the inclination to greed should be
given up; in unpleasant feelings the inclination to aversion
should be given up; in neutral feelings the inclination to
ignorance should be given up. If a monk has given up in pleasant
feelings the inclination to greed, in unpleasant feelings the
inclination to aversion, and in neutral feelings the inclination
to ignorance, then he is called one who is free of (unsalutary)
inclinations, one who sees clearly. He has cut off cravings,
sundered the fetters, and through the destruction of conceit, has
made an end of suffering.
If one feels joy, but knows not feeling's nature,
Bent towards greed, he will not find deliverance.
If one feels pain, but knows not feeling's nature,
Bent towards hate, he will not find deliverance.
And even neutral feeling which as peaceful
The Lord of Wisdom has proclaimed,
If, in attachment, he should cling to it, this
Will not set free him from the round of ill.
But if a monk is ardent and does not neglect
To practise mindfulness and comprehension clear,
The nature of all feelings will he penetrate.
And having done so, in this very life
Will he be free from cankers, from all taints.
Mature in knowledge, firm in Dhamma's ways,
When once his life-span ends, his body breaks,
All measure and concepts will be transcended.
After getting rid of sensual cravings and after uncovering,
confronting, and relinquishing unwholesome emotions, there remains
only one fetter to be resolved. This is narcissism, the infatuation
for one's self, which results in egotism, and an endless quest for
social recognition and self-exaltation. Perpetuating this fetter is
the illusion that one has a true or unchanging self, the "real me." In
reality there is no such entity; instead there are only feelings,
sensations, and emotions, and once we gain full appreciation of this
fact, once it becomes a living reality to us, narcissism diminishes.
Among the Buddha's teachings are numerous passages like the following:
There is no corporeality, no feeling, no perception, no mental
formations, no consciousness that is permanent, enduring and
lasting, and that, not subject to any change, will eternally
remain the same. If there existed such an ego that is permanent,
enduring and lasting, and not subject to any change, then the
holy life leading to the complete extinction of suffering will
not be possible.
Better it would be to consider the body as the ego rather than
the mind. And why? Because this body may last for ten, twenty,
thirty, forty or fifty years, even for a hundred years and more.
But that which is called "mind, consciousness, thinking," arises
continuously, during day and night, as one thing, and as
something different again it vanishes.
Such statements, however, are merely philosophical arguments
through which one may intellectually accept this fact. Only by
experiencing it as a living reality and by an impartial analysis of
the self do we relinquish egotism. Thus in the Satipatthana Sutta,
after each of the six body meditations and after each of the
meditations on feeling, consciousness, and mental objects, the
following passage occurs. (Quoted here is the section on feelings. The
words "body," "consciousness," and "mental objects" are substituted
for the word "feelings" in their respective sections of the sutta.)
Thus he lives contemplating feelings in himself, or he lives
contemplating feelings in other persons, or he lives
contemplating feelings both in himself and in others. He lives
contemplating origination-factors in feelings, or he lives
contemplating dissolution-factors in feelings, or he lives
contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in feelings. Or
his mindfulness is established with the thought, "Feeling
exists," to the extent necessary just for knowledge and
mindfulness, and he lives independent, and clings to nothing in
the world. Thus, monks, a monk lives contemplating feelings.
In the instance of anger, one would reflect: "This is anger." ...
"It is a feeling." ... "I do not identify with it." ... "It will
eventually be replaced by another feeling, which in turn will be
replaced by still another." ... "I am a composite of various feelings;
a changing aggregate of attitudes, values, and thoughts; no one of
which is permanent." ... "There is no eternal I." As such objectivity
and detachment increases, anger diminishes, for no longer is there an
ego to be defended and no self which can be offended.
Except for a concluding section on the Four Noble Truths (see
above, p.3), we have now discussed all but two portions of the
Satipatthana Sutta. These remaining two are included under the section
on mental objects and are primarily intended to free one from sensual
craving and the illusion of self:
Herein, monks, a monk thinks: "Thus is material form; thus is the
arising of material form; and thus is the disappearance of
material form. Thus is feeling; thus is the arising of feeling;
and thus is the disappearance of feeling. Thus is perception;
thus is the arising of perception; and thus is the disappearance
of perception. Thus are mental formations (i.e. thoughts); thus
is the arising of mental formations; and thus is the
disappearance of mental formations. Thus is consciousness; thus
is the arising of consciousness; and thus is the disappearance of
Herein, monks, a monk knows the eye and visual forms, and the
fetter that arises dependent on both; he knows how the arising of
the non-arisen fetter comes to be; he knows how the abandoning of
the arisen fetter comes to be; and he knows how the non-arising
in the future of the abandoned fetter comes to be.
This latter passage is repeated five times with "ear and sound,"
"nose and smells," "tongue and flavours," "body and tactual objects,"
and "mind and mental objects" respectively substituted where "eye and
visual forms" appears above.
We have thus completed the Satipatthana Sutta. In summary, it first
prescribes mindfulness of breathing as a technique for quieting the
mind and developing concentration. This same heightened awareness is
then developed for all voluntary physical actions. Next are the
meditations on repulsiveness, elements, and death, which are intended
to free one from bodily attachment and lust; this is done by
contemplating the temporary and changing nature of the body and by
developing negative and unpleasant associations. The remaining three
sections enable the practitioner to become fully aware of his
thoughts, feelings, and emotions and to confront them impartially in
their true nature. With each of these exercises, one also objectively
notes that each facet of his own mind and body is temporary,
compounded, and changing, and therefore there exists no immortal soul,
unchanging essence, or true self.
One important fact should be noted. //Neither in the Satipatthana
Sutta nor in any of the other seven steps of the Eightfold Path is
advocated the denial or suppression of feelings//. It is a widely
spread and inaccurate belief that Theravada Buddhism attempts to
destroy evil thoughts by forcing them from the mind. Suppression of
undesirable thoughts is advocated in only a few parts of the Pali
Canon and is to be used only in special cases when other measures
In southern Asia it is becoming a common practice for both monks
and laymen to enter a meditation centre for periods of from six to
twelve weeks. Here one dons the white robe of an //upasaka// and is
removed from all social contacts and material possessions. Previous
social status and identity soon come to have little meaning, thus
minimizing the effect of established habits and adaptations and
thereby enhancing the opportunities for personality growth. The food
is palatable but bland, and one eats and sleeps in moderation
according to a strict schedule, and even eating and dressing become
routine meditation practices. Virtually every waking moment is
dedicated to meditation. Here progress is made at a rate impossible to
achieve by setting aside an hour or two in the midst of a busy day.
After his stay is over, the layman returns to family life and
continues his daily one-hour practice. However, not all meditation
centres are of high quality. Many are lax; a few are corrupt, and a
few teach unorthodox meditations which are not truly Buddhist. Thus a
person seeking entry should first make inquiries and would do well to
avoid centres which make an effort to recruit Westerners for the sake
of publicity and prestige. Satipatthana meditation centres exist in
North America, and courses are given in England.
* * *
The Eighth Step
The last step of the Noble Eightfold Path is termed right
concentration and concerns the attainment of the four absorptions or
//jhanas//. These states are achieved by an extreme degree of
concentration and mental quietude beyond that usually sought through
mindfulness of breathing. Yet, unlike Satipatthana, the jhanas are not
a prerequisite to Enlightenment. Some teachers say one may obtain
Nibbana without reaching the absorptions, and they alone will not
produce Nibbana. Also, there is the danger of one becoming enamoured
with them and not striving for further progress. However, achieving
the jhanas can facilitate one's progress.
In these states all visual, tactile, auditory, and other sense
impressions have ceased, while the mind remains alert and fully awake.
The first jhana is described as having five qualities absent and five
present. Absent are lust, anger, sloth, agitation, and doubt. Present
are a mild degree of conceptual thought, a mild degree of discursive
thinking, rapture, happiness, and concentration. With the removal of
all conceptual thought and discursive thinking one enters the second
jhana, which has the qualities of concentration, rapture, and
happiness. Then with the abandonment of rapture, one enters the third
jhana in which only equanimous happiness and concentration remain. The
distinctive factors of the fourth absorption are equanimity and
concentration. This last jhana is realized after giving up all joy and
sorrow and is described as a state beyond pleasure and pain.
The jhanas are obtained by mindfulness of breathing with a steady,
progressive quieting of the breath. They may also be realized
through the kasina meditations and meditating on equanimity.
At this point it is interesting to speculate on the phenomena of
parapsychology. Despite the fraudulent and careless investigations
which have been done in psychical research, there still remains a
sizable number of reliable and carefully controlled studies
(especially in England) which have demonstrated that people do,
indeed, possess the faculties of telepathy, clairvoyance, and
precognition (i.e. respectively, the abilities to read another's
thoughts, to see or know distant happenings beyond the range of normal
vision, and to foretell future events). In addition some researchers
claim to have established the existence of psychokinesis, the power of
mind over matter, but the evidence for psychokinesis is inconclusive
and most experiments have failed to demonstrate its validity. Of those
parapsychology subjects who have been tested to date, even the best
guess incorrectly as often as correctly and are unable to determine
which of their guesses are correct. That is, while being tested, the
ESP subject is unable to distinguish between guesses and true
extra-sensory information. One might wonder if the process of
reducing sensory impressions and stilling discursive thoughts would
enhance these psychic abilities.
According to the Pali texts there are five psychical powers which
can be obtained through meditation. These five include psychokinesis,
telepathy, and clairvoyance, plus two others. The additional two are
the "divine ear" or clairaudience (the auditory counterpart of
clairvoyance) and the ability to recall past lives. Precognition
itself is not listed among these but is mentioned in other sections of
the Tipitaka. Reliable use of these powers is allegedly possessed only
by those who have achieved the four jhanas either with or without
Nibbana. Thus, like more worldly talents, Nibbana alone does not
The most important consideration, however, is that Buddhism places
very little emphasis on paranormal phenomena and regards them as
by-products of spiritual development rather than goals. In fact, the
novice is cautioned against experimenting with them, since they
distract from one's true goals and in some cases can be obstructive or
Supernormal powers are the supernormal powers of the ordinary
man. They are hard to maintain, like a prone infant or like a
baby hare, and the slightest thing breaks them. But they are an
impediment for insight, not for concentration, since they are
obtainable through concentration. So the supernormal powers are
an impediment that should be severed by one who seeks
* * *
Other Forms of Meditation
The Satipatthana exercises are by far the most valuable and widely
practised of all the Theravada meditations. There are, however, a
total of forty meditation subjects listed in the //Visuddhimagga//
including those already mentioned, i.e. Satipatthana practices and
meditations on love, equanimity, repulsiveness of food, and the
Buddha. The remaining subjects are the Dhamma, the Order of Monks,
virtue, generosity, devas, peace, compassion, gladness, boundless
space, boundless consciousness, nothingness, the base of neither
perception nor non-perception, and the ten kasinas. Each of these
subjects is intended for specific individual needs, and one should not
attempt to undertake all forty. To do so would only dilute one's
energies and retard progress.
A //kasina// is an object (such as a clay disk, a flame, or colour)
which the practitioner looks at from a distance of about four feet.
The eyes are alternately opened and closed until one has acquired a
mental image of the object which is as vivid as the real one. The
ten kasina meditations develop the jhanas and do not enhance insight.
Meditation is not an exclusively Buddhist tradition. It is equally
important in the Hindu religion and because the two schools employ
similar techniques, they are often confused. Thus a comparison is
warranted. Both advocate preparatory moral discipline, moderation in
eating, quieting the mind, and abolition of selfish desires. The
postures are similar, and the breathing meditation is practised by
many yogis. Here, however, the similarities cease. Buddhism is
concerned with the empirical phenomena of conscious experience, and
thus its meditations are psychologically oriented. Hinduism, on the
other hand, is mystically, religiously, and metaphysically inclined.
Yogic meditation, therefore, has devotional aspects often including
prayer. While Buddhism emphasizes motivations and insight, Hinduism
speaks of Infinite Consciousness, Cosmic Reality, and oneness with
God. To the Hindu, freedom from hatred is not so much an end in itself
as it is a step towards Immortality. The following typifies Hindu
Retire into a solitary room. Close your eyes. Have deep silent
meditation. Feel his (God's) presence. Repeat His name OM with
fervour, joy and love. Fill your heart with love. Destroy the
Sankalpas, thoughts, whims, fancies, and desires when they arise
from the surface of the mind. Withdraw the wandering mind and fix
it upon the Lord. Now, Nishta, meditation will become deep and
intense. Do not open your eyes. Do not stir from your seat. Merge
in Him. Dive deep into the innermost recesses of the heart.
Plunge into the shining Atma (Soul) within. Drink the nectar of
Immortality. Enjoy the silence now. I shall leave you there
alone. Nectar's son, Rejoice, Rejoice! Peace, Peace! Silence,
Silence! Glory, Glory!
Another important difference concerns the visions that occur during
meditation. The Buddhist regards these as psychological phenomena to
be dealt with in the same way as distracting thoughts. The Hindu often
interprets them as psychic experiences indicative of spiritual
development. In the words of Swami Sivananda:
Sometimes Devatas (gods), Rishis (sages), Nitya Siddhas will
appear in meditation. Receive them with honour. Bow to them. Get
advice from them. They appear before you to help and give you
A few passages in the Tao-Te-Ching suggest that the Chinese mystics
discovered meditation independently of Buddhist and Hindu traditions:
Can you govern your animal soul, hold to the One and never depart
Can you throttle your breath, down to the softness of breath in a
Can you purify your mystic vision and wash it until it is
Stop your senses,
Close the doors;
Let sharp things be blunted,
The light tempered
And turmoil subdued;
For this is mystic unity
In which the Wise Man is moved
Neither by affection
Nor yet by estrangement
Or profit or loss
Or honor or shame.
Accordingly, by all the world,
He is held highest. (v. 56)
To know that you are ignorant is best;
To know what you do not, is a disease;
But if you recognize the malady
Of mind for what it is, then that is health.
The Wise Man has indeed a healthy mind;
He sees an aberration as it is
And for that reason never will
be ill. (v. 71)
The exact nature of early Taoist meditation will probably remain
unknown, since later Taoism has intermingled with Mahayana Buddhism.
Mahayana Buddhist meditations include all the above mentioned
Theravada practices plus others. The division of Mahayana into
numerous and varied sects precludes any general statement about its
practices. In some forms it bears similarities to Hinduism by virtue
of devotional emphasis and prayer. In other schools this similarity is
seen in the Mahayana concepts of Universal Mind, the Void, and Buddha
Nature, which sometimes take precedence over the Theravada concerns of
greed, hatred, and delusion. The curing of physical illness and the
flow of spiritual forces through the body are other features of
certain Mahayana practices:
Vibrations (during meditation) show the free passage of the vital
principle. As it passes through the stomach and intestines, it
vibrates when the belly is empty. But when the belly is full, it
ceases to vibrate. The breath reaches the lower belly more easily
when the latter is full. Vibrations are not accidental but come
from the vital principle circulating in the belly. As time
passes, when your meditation is more effective and the vital
principle flows freely, then these vibrations will cease.
Of all the Mahayana schools, Zen places the greatest emphasis upon
meditation. Zen practice is much like Theravada. It focuses on
quieting the mind and shuns conceptual thinking in preference to
direct experience. The postures are also similar, and the initial Zen
practice usually involves attention to breathing. It does not include
as wide a variety of different techniques. Zen places greater emphasis
on the details of correct posture and, especially in the Soto school,
contrasts with Theravada by preferring group meditation to individual
practice. In order to cultivate a suitable state of mind, Zen
meditation is often followed by chanting and gongs.
Perhaps the most significant difference is that, as compared to
Theravada, Zen makes little mention of the need and means of dealing
with motives, feelings, and emotions. It lays great emphasis upon
freeing oneself from intellectualizing and conceptualizing in one's
quest of "the Ultimate." But at the same time it offers scant advice
on the means by which one overcomes unwholesome impulses or confronts
mental hindrances that are emotional or motivational in origin.
* * *
Scientific Evaluations of Meditation
The Venerable Anuruddha, a disciple of the Buddha, once became ill
with a painful disease. On that occasion several of the monks visited
him and inquired:
What might be the state of mind dwelling in which painful bodily
sensations are unable to perturb the mind of the Venerable
It is a state of mind, brethren, that is firmly grounded in the
four foundations of mindfulness; and due to that, painful bodily
sensations cannot perturb my mind.
Throughout Buddhist history, there have been numerous other
testimonies as to the benefits of Satipatthana. Yet personal
testimonies and case histories are subjective and prone to distortion.
The reader may well wonder what, if any, scientific studies have been
conducted. To date there are two areas of investigation which have
given some evidence as to the benefits of meditation.
The first scientific evidence does not involve meditation per se, but
concerns an experimental situation which has some similarities to
meditation practice. This is sensory deprivation, which has been
actively studied since 1951. There are two types of sensory
deprivation. One reduces sensory input by placing the experimental
subject in a totally dark, soundproof room. His hands are encased in
soft cotton; the temperature is constant and mild, and he lies on a
soft mattress. The other type does not reduce sensory input per se,
but does diminish perception. In this latter case the subject wears
opaque goggles so that he sees only a diffuse white with no forms or
colours. A constant monotonous noise is generated, and no other sounds
are heard. Approximately the same results are obtained in either type
of experiment. In both kinds the subject lies relatively motionless;
he is free to think or sleep as he pleases and may terminate the
session if he so desires. Experiments have lasted from four hours to
The lack of practice and lack of any attempt at mental discipline
makes sensory deprivation a passive procedure notably different from
meditation. However, both meditation and sensory deprivation involve a
temporary withdrawal from external stimuli without loss of
consciousness, and thus a comparison is warranted.
Perhaps the most characteristic feature of sensory deprivation
research to date is the great discrepancies in the findings of
different researchers. For example, some studies have shown it to
impair learning, while others find that learning is enhanced.61 Most
of the early studies reported that the great majority (in some cases
all) of experimental subjects had strong visual and sometimes auditory
hallucinations beginning from twenty minutes to seventy hours after
entering the experiment. Other researchers, however, reported very few
hallucinations. Suggestion is a partial, though not total, explanation
for this difference in frequency of hallucinations. One study found
that under identical sensory deprivation conditions a group of
subjects which was told that hallucinations were frequent and normal
had over three times more than an identical group which was given no
such information.62 This no doubt explains many of the psychic
experiences of those yogi devotees who seek visions while meditating
Recent studies have indicated that the emotional atmosphere created
by the experimenters plus the subject's attitudes, knowledge, and
expectations may have greater effect on the results of the experiment
than do the physical aspects of sensory deprivation.63 Regarding
meditation, this fact suggests the importance of moral, intellectual,
and environmental preparation. It also suggests the importance of
taking a few moments before meditation to create a wholesome frame of
What is most significant for the purpose of this writing, however,
is whether or not sensory deprivation and its accompanying social
isolation facilitate awareness of one's inner emotional conflicts and
thereby facilitate personality growth. Several studies have indicated
that such is the case. Most significant was an experiment conducted on
thirty white male psychiatric patients in Richmond, Virginia. The
group consisted of approximately equal numbers of neurotics,
schizophrenics, and character disorders, and all were subjected to a
maximum six hours of sensory deprivation. Each subject was given a
battery of psychological tests the day before the experiment, and the
same tests were repeated the day after and again one week later. The
tests rated the subjects on twenty items such as anxiety, depression,
hostility, memory deficit, disorganized thinking, etc. It was found
that on each of the twenty items some subjects improved, some worsened
and some revealed no change. However, the desirable changes
outnumbered the undesirable ones by a ratio of two to one, and one
week after the experiment most of the beneficial changes were found to
have persisted while the undesirable ones had mostly subsided. Some
subjects showed no desirable changes on any of the twenty items;
others revealed as many as thirteen. The average subject improved on
four of the twenty items and worsened on two. The experimenters also
reported that the subjects displayed "increased awareness of inner
conflicts and anxieties, and heightened perception of the fact that
their difficulties stemmed from inner rather than outer factors.... A
second major change observed was a less rigid utilization of
repressive and inhibitory defenses. The reduction of incoming
stimulation led to recall and verbalization of previously forgotten
experiences in many instances. For some subjects this recall was
Other studies have supported this finding that short term sensory
deprivation is psychologically beneficial. (Deprivation of a day or
more is likely to be detrimental.) However, other carefully conducted
investigations have found no such improvements, and therefore
further studies are indicated before any definite conclusions can be
made about the therapeutic value of sensory deprivation.
//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)
tracings of Zen masters.[66,67]
The EEG tracings revealed that about ninety seconds after an
accomplished Zen practitioner begins meditation, a rhythmic slowing in
the brain wave pattern known as alpha waves occurs. This slowing
occurs //with eyes open// and progresses with meditation, and after
thirty 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 waking 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
Another finding of the same study concerned what is 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. For a few seconds his attention is diverted from the reading to
the noise. If the same sound is then repeated 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.
* * *
The Social Fruits of Meditation
Through science, technology, and social organization Western man has
built a civilization of unprecedented wealth and grandeur. Yet despite
this mastery of his environment, he has given little thought to
mastery of himself. In fact, his newly-acquired wealth and leisure
have heightened his sensuality and weakened his self-discipline. It
becomes increasingly apparent, however, that a stable and prosperous
democracy can endure only so long as we have intelligent,
self-disciplined, and properly motivated citizens; legislation and
education alone will not ensure this. Buddhism presents a technique by
which this can be obtained, but the responsibility rests with each
individual. No one can cure our neuroses and strengthen our characters
In the Sumbha country in the town of Sedaka the Buddha once said:
"I shall protect myself," in that way the foundations of
mindfulness should be practised. "I shall protect others," in
that way the foundations of mindfulness should be practised.
Protecting oneself one protects others; protecting others one
protects oneself. And how does one, in protecting oneself,
protect others? By the repeated and frequent practice of
meditation. And how does one, in protecting others, protect
oneself? By patience and forbearance, by a non-violent and
harmless life, by loving-kindness and compassion. "I shall
protect myself," in that way the foundations of mindfulness
should be practised. "I shall protect others," in that way the
foundations of mindfulness should be practised. Protecting
oneself, one protects others; protecting others, one protects
* * * * * * * *
1. //Buddhism//, by Richard A. Gard. New York: George Braziller, Inc.,
1961, pp. 207-8.
2. //The Heart of Buddhist Meditation//, by Nyanaponika Thera. London:
Rider & Co. 1962, p. 82.
3. //An Experiment in Mindfulness//, by E.H. Shattock. New York: E.P.
Dutton & Co., Inc., 1960, pp.17, 19.
4. //Samyutta Nikaya//, 47:21.
5. //Visuddhimagga//, IV, 40-41. Translation by Bhikkhu Nanamoli.
Colombo: R. Semage, 1956.
6. //An Experiment in Mindfulness//, p. 8.
7. //Visuddhimagga//, III, 62-65, 121.
8. //Ibid//., IV, 120.
9. //Samyutta Nikaya//, 46:53.
10. //Buddhism as a Way of Life//, by Douglas M. Burns. San Carlos,
California: Neo-Dhamma, 1964.
11. //The Foundations of Mindfulness//. Translation by Nyanasatta
Thera. BPS Wheel No. 19.
12. //Samyutta Nikaya//, 47:48.
13. //Ibid//., 47:50.
14. //Foundations of Mindfulness//, p. 3.
15. //Heart of Buddhist Meditation//, p. 98.
16. //Visuddhimagga//, VIII, 200.
17. //Ibid//., VIII, 202.
18. //Ibid//., VIII, 190.
19. //Ibid//., VIII, 195.
20. //Ibid//., VIII, 206-7.
21. //The Heart of Buddhist Meditation//, pp. 85-86.
22. //Ibid//., p. 97.
23. //An Experiment in Mindfulness//, pp. 52-55.
24. //Samyutta Nikaya//, 46:53.
25. //Majjhima Nikaya//, 119.
26. //Visuddhimagga//, XI, 30.
27. //Ibid//., XI, 26.
28. //Samyutta Nikaya//, 47:10.
29. //Visuddhimagga//, VI.
30. //Ibid//., IX.
31. //Buddhism in a Nutshell//, by Narada Thera. Bambalapitiya,
Ceylon: Asoka Dharmadutha Sangamaya, 1959, pp. 67-69.
32. //Ibid//., pp. 70-71.
33. //Visuddhimagga//, VII, 65.
34. //Anguttara Nikaya//, VI, 10.
35. //An Experiment in Mindfulness//.
36. //Majjhima Nikaya//, 123.
37. //Samyutta Nikaya//, 35:152. The reader will note that this
passage also demonstrates the highly experiential aspect of
38. //The Heart of Buddhist Meditation//, pp. 68-70.
39. //Samyutta Nikaya//, 47:49.
40. //Ibid//., 36:3.
41. //Ibid//., 22:96.
42. //Ibid//., 12:61.
43. //The Removal of Distracting Thoughts//. Translation by Soma
Thera. BPS Wheel No. 21.
44. //The Word of the Buddha//, by Nyanatiloka Mahathera. Kandy: BPS,
45. //Ibid//., pp. 80-81.
46. //The Heart of Buddhist Meditation//, p. 111.
47. //Visuddhimagga//, III, 107.
48. //Psychical Research Today//, by D.J. West. Baltimore, Md.:
Penguin Books, 1962.
49. //The Word of the Buddha//, pp. 67-68.
50. //Ibid//., p. 68.
51. //Visuddhimagga//, XII, 11.
52. //Digha Nikaya//, No. 11, Kevaddha Sutta.
53. //Visuddhimagga//, III, 56.
54. //Ibid//., IV, 30.
55. //Concentration and Meditation//, by Swami Sivananda. Himalayas,
India: Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy, 1959, p. 314.
56. //Ibid//., p. 171.
57. //The Way of Life: Tao-Te-Ching//. Translation by R.B. Blakney.
New York: The New American Library, 1955.
58. //The Secrets of Chinese Meditation//, by Charles Luk. London:
Rider & Co., 1964, p. 187.
59. //Samyutta Nikaya//, 52:10.
60. //Sensory Deprivation//, by Solomon, Kubzansky, Leiderman,
Mendelson, Trumbull, and Wexler. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1961.
61. //Science//, Vol. 123, "Effect of Sensory Deprivation on Learning
Rate in Human Beings," by J. Vernon and J. Hoffman. June 15, 1956,
62. //Archives of General Psychiatry//, Vol. 8, "Studies in Sensory
Deprivation," by J. Pollard, L. Uhr, and W. Jackson. May, 1963,
64. //Archives of General Psychiatry//, Vol. 3. "Therapeutic Changes
in Psychiatric Patients Following Partial Sensory Deprivation," by
R. Gibby, H. Adams, and R. Carrera. July, 1960, pp. 57/33-66/42.
65. //Archives of General Psychiatry//, Vol. 8. "Therapeutic
Effectiveness of Sensory Deprivation," by S. Cleveland, E.
Reitman, & C. Bentinck. May, 1963, pp. 455-60.
66. //The Science of Zazen// (a 16 mm. sound motion picture and
accompanying pamphlet, both in English), by A. Kasamatsu and T.
Hirai. Tokyo University. April, 1963.
67. //Folia Psychiatrica et Neurologica Japonica//, Vol. 20, No. 4.
"An Electroencephalographic Study of the Zen Meditation (Zazen)",
by Akira Kasamatsu and Tomio Hirai. December, 1966, pp. 315-36.
68. //Samyutta Nikaya//, 47:19.
* * * * * * * *
Some Observations and Suggestions for Insight Meditation
The preceding was written in 1964 with a few minor revisions and
additions made in the latter part of 1965. Now, at the start of 1972
and after six years in Thailand, it seems befitting that I review my
own words. For the past years have not only added to my own experience
with meditation, they have also brought me into close and prolonged
contact (often close friendships) with other meditation practitioners
many of whom are more dedicated, more skilful, and more experienced
One is impressed with the variety of personalities who undertake
practice. Some are experimental, critical, and pragmatic; others more
devotional, dedicated, and idealistic. Some seem well adjusted and at
peace with themselves and the world, while others seem desperate to
find happiness and purpose in life. Some adhere literally to every
detail of the scriptures, while some instead are dedicated to the
interpretations and methods of their respective teachers. Still others
attempt to find the ways and means alone by their own individual and
unaided efforts. Likewise the techniques and methods which these
people have undertaken are also highly varied and divergent.
During this period of personal practice and consultation with
others, I have seen what I believe to be some genuine achievements and
also some notable failures. The question then is: What is it that
succeeds and what is it that does not? And why? Or to state the matter
more precisely: One may succeed in one area of meditative development
but not in another.
In order to evaluate progress at meditation one must have some
criteria or standards against which to judge. Thus we must ask
ourselves, what is it that, short of Nibbana, we expect to find in one
who has made genuine progress along the Eightfold Path? Momentary
periods of euphoria, altered perceptions, or other transient episodes
of unusual states of consciousness are not what we seek. Likewise, we
are not in pursuit of occult powers, unusual EEG patterns, or control
of the autonomic nervous system (such as slowing the heart rate or
changing body temperature).
With reference to the Four Noble Truths, we note the Buddha's
words: "One thing do I teach: suffering (i.e. //dukkha//) and the end
of suffering." Thus if one has truly progressed, we would expect that
where previously sad and depressed, one is now less so; where
previously selfish, one is now more giving; where previously
defensive, secretive, and guarded, one is now more open and
self-assured. Worry and anxiety should be reduced. Objective humility
should replace conceit. Instead of recurrent thoughts of anger and
"getting even" one is more forgiving and at peace with the world. It
is felt that such attainments have been observed, occurring as the
result of properly directed Buddhist practice.
Again with reference to the Four Noble Truths, it is craving or
desire which causes our unhappiness and produces our mental
defilements. Thus only by attacking the problems of craving, wanting,
and desiring can progress be made. I speak now not so much of the
crude and obvious desires such as hunger and sex but of the more
subtle ones of egotism, emotional dependency, and desires for
possession. One may fast for two weeks and yet never once look at the
fact that the real reason for fasting is to feed one's ego -- to be
better, more disciplined, more pious than one's fellow practitioners.
Or one may work diligently attempting to win the approval, confidence,
and affection of a stern and aloof teacher and never once realize that
one is attempting to compensate for the frustration and lack of love
from a stern and aloof parent. To really break through these "hang
ups" one must focus attention, not on the sensation of breath at the
nostrils, but instead focus on the agonizing feelings of inadequacy,
mediocrity, loneliness, or rejection in one's heart.
When asked "What have you gained from meditation?" the correct
answer should be "nothing." For meditation is not for acquiring but
for giving up -- a full and complete giving up of the self. Too often
people put in a half-hour each day at meditation in the same way that
they put in a half-hour studying French. After so many months or years
one has a new attribute, a new skill to add to one's already
impressive repertoire of virtues, achievements, talents, and
abilities. "I can speak French, play the piano, ski, type sixty words
a minute, and meditate as well." Such a person is either compensating
for strong feelings of inadequacy or else is badly afflicted with
Another way in which meditation becomes misdirected, as a result of
the very motives which determined it, is the quest for new sensations
or experiences, i.e. //lobha//. Many seek from meditation the very
same thing they seek from drugs -- i.e. an overwhelming ego-immersing
experience of sensations, perceptions, colours, emotions, and
"transcendental states beyond words."
It is not meant to belittle such experiences and say that they have
no significance or no value. But as with taking LSD or seeing a good
motion picture, they quickly pass into memories. And once past, in a
very short time one's old mood changes, petty jealousies, conceits,
and irritations are back just as strong and as frequent as ever. If
there has been no true and lasting personality change, then Buddhist
meditation has fallen short of its intended goal.
At the opposite extreme are persons whose approaches to Buddhism
are excessively dogmatic, literal, orthodox, and moralistic. They
strongly resist a pragmatic, eclectic approach to meditation and are
hyper-concerned with the nuances and fine points of Buddhist tradition
and decorum. From these sources one repeatedly hears such statements
as, "To progress at meditation there must be strict moral discipline,"
or "You cannot expect fast results but must work for years." Now there
is truth in both these statements. But in this context they are really
symptoms of extreme rigidity and dogmatism, which in principle is no
different than the dogmatism of many Christian missionaries or other
persons doggedly committed to a given institution. One's commitment to
the tradition and to the letter of the teaching is so strong that one
is incapable of truly practising that very same teaching which advises
one to have no prejudices and to see truth as universal and
independent of any institution. I feel that this unfortunate
phenomenon accounts for several instances of very diligent and
dedicated meditation practitioners who, despite years of intensive
practice, reveal little more than chronic, mild depression mixed with
The theme of guilt and self-punishment is one factor (though not
the only one) which tends to perpetuate the phenomenon of diligent
striving with minimal results. It usually begins with one taking a
highly idealistic, moralistic, and sometimes devotional approach to
Dhamma. One tries for one-pointed concentration and complete
suppression of mental defilements. One fails and tries again; fails
and tries again. Blaming oneself for one's failure one comes to feel
guilty and tries even harder, again failing. With this the austerity
of one's practice comes to take on a self-punitive nature. Angry with
oneself, one becomes more severe with oneself.
For those who have some insight into their dilemma, there may be
the added problem of feeling guilty about feeling guilty or becoming
irritated that one gets irritated. But insight is also the first step
to resolution. The second step is to back off and relax a bit. As the
Buddha said, the guitar string once too slack has now been wound too
tight, and to produce harmony the tension must be relieved. For
idealistic, moralistic personalities, letting go and relaxing are the
very things that intensify one's guilt. Yet in principle this is much
like what the Buddha did when he renounced austere asceticism and took
up the middle way. The practitioner must stand back and re-appraise
his whole involvement in Buddhism and examine the matter fully without
fearing the consequences of his decision.
In evaluating progress at meditation it is important to distinguish
between true Buddhist attainment and adaptation. Any human being (or
for that matter almost any biological organism) when placed in a new
situation goes through the process of adjusting, adapting, and growing
accustomed. This is true of human life in general, and it is true of a
man who takes the robes of a Buddhist monk. With the passage of time
he grows to accept his role, to acclimatize, and to learn to "work the
system"; he may become contented and happy by virtue of duration and
This process of adaptation is especially relevant in the case of
intensive meditation practice where one may spend weeks or months
confined to a small room, leaving that room only for brief meetings
and instructions from the meditation master. In such situations the
practitioner may get extreme feelings of peace and happiness, of
clarity and alertness of mind such as never before seen, and also he
may glimpse what appear to be transcendental states. (However, moments
of depression, agitation, sobbing, etc., are also common, depending on
the person.) Many who have completed such training have come away
greatly impressed and highly praising this technique. However, it
appears that all of these impressive subjective experiences vanish as
soon as one comes out of cloistered isolation, and then, much like a
drug experience, they remain only as memories. Moreover, many people
who have "finished the course" appear to manifest the same selfishness
and general human shortcomings as found in human beings picked at
random. In addition, there is a hazard in that some "graduates" have
revealed extreme pride relative to their attainment.
From this it should not be assumed that there is nothing to be
gained from such intensive training. On the contrary, I have
frequently suggested it to persons seeking competent meditation
instruction. However, I do feel that the empirical evidence shows that
for many if not most people this technique alone is insufficient. And
the very facts of the Eightfold Path and the Buddhist scriptures in
general support this thesis. Thus it would be wise to resolve one's
mundane problems of social adjustment and other emotional conflicts
before attempting more specialized practices.
Quite often a cloister which protects one from all forms of
insults, humiliation, irritation, and anxiety may induce a false sense
of attainment and lull one into complacency. We can confront and
abolish our mental defilements only when they are actively alive in
our minds. We cannot do this when they are but hazy memories or
intellectually created notions. Consequently many practitioners have
found that their progress is enhanced by having true life situations
of social interaction and frustration. On the other hand, an excessive
exposure to such interactions and frustrations may exceed one's
ability for alert mindfulness, and one thereby insidiously becomes
involved with the quarrels and fascinations that breed hatred and
sorrow. When living in a cloister where no problems arise, one's
defensive reactions and dispositions may lie dormant and thus remain
hidden. But in ordinary lay life, temptations, sensations, and
problems arise so fast that much of the daily routine is little more
than a repeating pattern of perceive, react and solve; perceive, react
and solve; perceive, react and solve; and so on.
Thus for many practitioners the solution lies in a middle way
between these extremes: that is, a situation in which one still has a
moderate exposure to chores, annoyances, and social interactions, but
this is interspersed with intervals of quietude and meditation. Such
intervals may be a duration of hours or a duration of weeks depending
on individual needs and circumstances. Thus by maintaining an optimal
amount of involvement with social and sensory arousal, such a one does
more than just perceive, react and solve. With mindfulness he is able
to catch the perception and reaction as it arises. He observes it,
scrutinizes it, and evaluates it. In so doing, it may then be
modified, abandoned or developed as seen fit. He acts with mindfulness
instead of on habit or reflex, and thus new responses and solutions
may be learned. If (as some psychologists have claimed) one's
personality is the sum total of one's perceptions, responses and
reactions, then in this way the growth and development of the
personality is possible.
The optimum proportion of time that one should spend in isolated
meditation as contrasted with the time spent in more mundane pursuits
will vary among different individuals. It will also vary according to
the method of practice and with different times and stages of
development for a given individual.
I state these above conclusions not only from a theoretical
position and not just because they seem to be revealed in the life
pattern of the Buddha and his disciples as portrayed in the suttas. My
own limited observations of persons who appear to have progressed at
Buddhist practice also fits this conclusion.
It is against such a background of observations and considerations
that I have reviewed my own earlier writing on meditation. In essence
these words still appear to be sound, and there are no statements that
I would see fit to repudiate. However, I feel one point needs to be
more strongly emphasized, and that is that a regular daily practice of
meditation alone will not be likely to show results unless one is
willing to thoroughly scrutinize his or her entire pattern of living
and be prepared to revise or abandon this lifestyle if so indicated.
In the same way one who undertakes Buddhist training as either a monk
or layman would do well not to set a time limit and should not commit
himself too strongly to future plans (such as "I will finish my
university training" or "I will return to my homeland to teach the
Dhamma"). For such a one has already decided beforehand just what he
will become and thereby has limited the amount of change that he will
allow himself to make.
Also (and partly as a result of Buddhaghosa's writings, i.e. the
//Visuddhimagga//) I think I have emphasized too strongly the amount
of breathing and other bodily-directed concentrations called for in
beginning practice (pp. 16ff.). I say this with some hesitation
because it has become popular in some circles to completely disown
concentration as important to Buddhist practice, and I do not agree
with this view. But if one focuses exclusively on breathing, walking,
or whatever to the point of blocking all thoughts and emotions, one is
thereby turning his attention away from the very mental defilements
and neurotic conflicts that must be confronted in order to be
overcome. Thus it is probably significant that in the Noble Eightfold
Path right concentration follows after right mindfulness.
One meets a fair number of people who have (or at least claim to
have) made considerable attainment at one-pointed concentration. Yet,
with a few notable exceptions, they appear to be just as prone to
selfishness and petty jealousies as any ordinary persons whom one
might meet at random. Some in fact have shown themselves to be very
unhappy, lonely, and/or insecure. On the other hand, persons who have
made only slight progress at sustained concentration have,
nevertheless, in the course of Buddhist practice, made considerable
progress at diminishing conceit, resentment, depression, and
selfishness. (However, the one person in my experience who, after
months of close observation, appears to have made the greatest
progress towards removing mental defilements of all sorts, is also the
only person I know who appears capable of entering the third jhana at
The same is true of the labelling technique (pp. 20-21) which is
especially common in some forms of Burmese intensive training. With
this technique one, who in meditation, finds himself daydreaming will
simply note this and label it "imagining, imagining" or "fantasy,
fantasy" and then return to awareness of breathing, body sensation, or
whatever. However, daydreams and fantasies are most often an
expression of our desires and emotional conflicts. If one examines the
daydream in the frame of mind: "What does it express?" "What desire is
it attempting to satisfy?" "What feeling does it carry?" then one can
gain insight into his emotional needs and at the same time confront
those same mental taints which meditation is supposed to overcome. The
labelling technique is, of course, highly useful in dispensing with
physical distractions such as itches, pains, and noises; and with
certain types of moods (e.g. boredom) and certain kinds of memories.
But it must be used judiciously; for if used exclusively it can retard
A general rule of practice which many practitioners have used to
advantage is as follows: One starts practice by attempting to quiet
and concentrate the mind. But after some minutes of finding that the
mind repeatedly wanders from its intended object, the practitioner
then stands back as it were and asks: "Just what is my present state
of mind at this instant?" "What is it that makes my attention wander
from its intended object?" This then is analyzed and confronted. In
principle this is much like another useful technique which is: One
does not choose any given meditation subject but instead simply sits
and takes note: "What is my mental state now? What gross feelings?
What subtle feelings? What memories and expectations? What intentions
or desires?" In actual practice this is done not in the form of verbal
thoughts, as expressed in the preceding sentences, but rather as a
state of watchful observation with few if any word thoughts present.
Quite often at such times one finds a subtle mental defilement which
must be examined and discarded. That is the idea: "Now I am meditating
and want to have something to show for it. I want something to
happen." Or it may be: "I want to confront and overcome my anger, but
now that I'm looking for it, it seems to have gone," and with this
arises a feeling of frustration. Herein one has set a goal and been
thwarted. Thus the desiring of this specific goal and its resultant
frustration is the very state of mind that must be dealt with.
Successful meditation requires catching the immediate present.
Finally a note about the attainments in meditation: unless one is
very advanced, one does not expect or aspire to any new or unusual
experience such as are known in ordinary life. Instead the attainments
are negative ones and thus only seen in retrospect. For example, one
suddenly reflects: "A year ago I was chronically depressed, unhappy,
irritable, defensive. That rarely happens now. Such and such a thing
used to upset me greatly. Now it happens and I hardly notice."
It may be stating the case too strongly to say that in meditation
one seeks to gain nothing. For there is an increase in happiness and
peace of mind. But when asked, "What have you gained from meditation?"
the answer would be: "It is not what I have gained that is important
but rather what I have diminished, namely, greed, hatred, and
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TITLE OF WORK: Buddhist Meditation and Depth Psychology (Wheel
Publication No. 88/89)
AUTHOR: Douglas M. Burns
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