Tue, 27 Mar 2007
Buddhism teaches that our suffering is caused by our misapprehension of the nature of our minds and perceptions. I won't spend any time trying to justify this, except to note that most of our suffering is mental and if we don't understand our minds we're unlikely to be able to resolve its problems. The main practice that Buddhism offers to end this confusion about our minds is meditation. Buddhism divides meditation into two kinds. The first, shamatha, is focusing attention on the present moment. The idea is that by paying attention to the present moment one will eventually be able to understand mind and perceptions.
The practice of meditation goes through several stages. At first, the mind is very wild and it requires a lot of effort just to sit still on the cushion. And the physical discomfort associated with the seated posture doesn't make it any easier. So at first meditation practice is a struggle. You have to fight to do it.
After you get more accustomed to practice, you have to watch that you don't fall into a lazy attitude, taking the seated posture, but only daydreaming. You need to make a concerted effort not to let a single thought slip by without noticing it. This is not blocking thoughts or changing them, it's maintaining vigilance in seeing them. There's also a tendency to divide the mind in two and keep a running commentary on your practice. The same attention needs to be paid to these thoughts as any other. In short, you need a consistent, concerted effort to notice everything that happens in your mind.
When you are able to do this, eventually you will notice that the "you" that you think you are is just a pattern of thoughts like any other. It's a natural progression that inevitably happens when you are able to maintain a vigilant awareness of the mind, though it's impossible to say exactly when this insight will come. With this insight the second kind of meditation, vipashyana, becomes possible. Vipashyana practice is resting in the awareness that there is no self and noting when one deviates from this understanding. This meditation has a different character than shamatha. Shamatha requires a certain strictness and tightness, while vipashyana practice is looser and more relaxed. This is because the sense of strictness is associated through habit with ego and reinforces the sense of ego. Because one is used to how shamatha is done, at first one tries to do vipashyana in the same way. So when the meditator gets to point in their practice a lot of emphasis is placed on not trying, not striving, and similar instructions.
In a perfect world everyone practicing meditation would be in close contact with a teacher who would only give the instruction appropriate for what the student needs right now, to avoid confusing them. Unfortunately, we have people getting intermediate and advanced instructions out of books and from teachers who do not present meditation in a skillful way. Some people take the instruction that you should not strive or try to achieve anything, which is appropriate to a certain stage of practice, as noted above, combine it with the intellectual understanding that there is no self and come up with a pernicious and mistaken view of spiritual practice. In this view all effort is mistaken and one simply has to "know" that you are already enlightened. This view is mistaken because the intellectual understanding that there is no ego is not of much use. You have to see how you are mistaken about the mind, what the sense of ego actually is, to cut through the ego. It's the difference between having a general idea of what Los Vegas is like and actually visiting there. Because getting this definite understanding depends upon a strong, consistent effort in your practice, holding the mistaken view described here cuts you off from any genuine understanding of what you seek.
There are many ways to talk about meditation and the description here is according to my tradition. There are other equally valid ways of talking about meditation with different terminology and I mean no criticism of them. But I have given this explanation to show how the idea that all effort is wrong and one simply has to "know" you are enlightened is badly mistaken.