Although this is the last week we will formally devote to learning the basics of the classic Buddhist meditation practice of anapanasati, as you may already appreciate, learning and practicing meditation is open-ended. Over the next months and years we will be honing and refining the practice. The seeds of the subtle points will blossom into gorgeous flowers of insight and joyous repose.
This week we will put all that we have learned together into what one prominent Thai meditation teacher has called the condensed anapanasati instructions. My own teacher in Sri Lanka, totally independent of these condensed instructions which I shall share with you below, came up with a similar abbreviated approach.
The reason an abbreviated approach is necessary is simply to address the needs of folks like you and I (unless you are a full-time meditator). Classically anapanasati was taught by the Buddha to his monks and nuns, and his instructions were geared to folks who had the time and dedication to practice all the sixteen steps he taught. Many teachers continue to instruct dedicated students, both lay and monastic, in these sixteen steps. However, as most of us find ourselves in circumstances quite different from the ones in which the first recipients of these teachings found themselves, there are, thankfully, keen teachers who have abbreviated the steps down to a manageble few. Before we get to the condensed instructions, let’s have a look at what these sixteen stages and steps entail in the classical presentation. I have taken the chart below from the excellent Wikipedia entry for “Anapanasati.”
“Formally, there are sixteen stages – or contemplations – of ānāpānasati. These are divided into four tetrads (i.e., sets or groups of four). The first four steps involve focusing the mind on breathing, which is the ‘body-conditioner’ (Pali: kāya-sankhāra). The second tetrad involves focusing on the feelings (vedanā), which are the ‘mind-conditioner’ (Pali: citta-sankhāra). The third tetrad involves focusing on the mind itself (Pali: citta), and the fourth on ‘the truth’ (Pali: dhamma).
|1. Contemplation of the body||1. Breathing long||First Tetrad|
|2. Breathing short|
|3. Experiencing the whole body|
|4. Tranquillising the bodily activities|
|2. Contemplation of feelings||5. Experiencing rapture||Second Tetrad|
|6. Experiencing bliss|
|7. Experiencing mental activities|
|8. Tranquillising mental activities|
|3. Contemplation of the mind||9. Experiencing the mind||Third Tetrad|
|10. Gladdening the mind|
|11. Centering the mind in samadhi|
|12. Releasing the mind|
|4. Contemplation of Dhammas||13. Contemplating impermanence||Fourth Tetrad|
|14. Contemplating fading of lust|
|15. Contemplating cessation|
|16. Contemplating relinquishment|
|Table 1.The Four Satipatthanas and the Sixteen Phases of Anapanasati.|
Now you can simply have a look at this chart and not spend too much time on it. It very well may give you a headache! What follows is one very down to earth way to cover all the important bases in one sitting. Please take your time reading the description below. We will spend some time referring to it as the weeks go by. But there is no further instruction–this is it. Now it’s time to put the tush to the cush.
These instructions were given by the remarkbale Thai woman Upasika Kee Nanayon sometime in the early 1960′s. The first ever collection of her talks was publised by Wisdom publications in 2005. I can’t resist including some promotional material about this invaluable book from the publisher’s website.
Pure and Simple
The Extraordinary Teachings of a Thai Buddhist Laywoman
Upasika Kee, Author
Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Author
Upasika Kee was a uniquely powerful spiritual teacher. Evocative of the great Ajahn Chah, her teachings are earthy, refreshingly direct, and hard-hitting. In the twentieth century, she grew to become one of the most famous teachers in Thailand-male or female-all the more remarkable because, rarer still, she was not a monastic but a layperson.
Her relentless honesty, along with her encouraging voice, is one reason so many contemporary Buddhist teachers recall Upasika Kee so fondly, and so often.
Pure and Simple, the first widely-available collection of her writings, will be gratefully received not only by those who knew Upasika Kee, but by anyone who encounters her for the first time in its pages.
I have taken the liberty of bolding statements which I believe are crucial in understanding these remarkable teachings.
The Extraordinary Teachings of a Thai Buddhist Laywoman (pages 43 to 55).
“Now, as for how we do breath meditation: The texts say to breathe in long and out long – heavy or light – and then to breathe in short and out short, again heavy or light. Those are the first steps of the training. After that we don’t have to focus on the length of the in-breath or out-breath. Instead, we simply gather our awareness at any one point of the breath and keep this up until the mind settles down and is still. When the mind is still, you then focus on the stillness of the mind at the same time you’re aware of the breath.
At this point you don’t focus directly on the breath. You focus on the mind that is still and at normalcy. You focus continuously on the normalcy of the mind at the same time that you’re aware of the breath coming in and out, without actually focusing on the breath. You simply stay with the mind, but you watch it with each in-and-out breath. Usually when you are doing physical work and your mind is at normalcy, you can know what you’re doing, so why can’t you be aware of the breath? After all, it’s part of the body.
Some of you are new at this, which is why you don’t know how you can focus on the mind at normalcy with each in-and-out breath without focusing directly on the breath itself. What we’re doing here is practicing how to be aware of the body and mind, pure and simple, in and of themselves…
Start out by focusing on the breath for about 5, 10, or 20 minutes. Breathe in long and out long, or in short and out short. At the same time, notice the stages in how the mind feels, how it begins to settle down when you have mindfulness watching over the breath. You’ve got to make a point of observing this, because usually you breathe out of habit, with your attention far away. You don’t focus on the breath; you’re not really aware of it. This leads you to think that it’s hard to stay focused here, but actually it’s quite simple. After all, the breath comes in and out on its own, by its very nature. There’s nothing at all difficult about breathing. It’s not like other themes of meditation.
For instance, if you’re going to practice recollection of the Buddha, or buddho, you have to keep on repeating buddho, buddho, buddho.
Actually, if you want, you can repeat buddho in the mind with each in-and-out breath, but only in the very beginning stages. You repeat buddho to keep the mind from concocting thoughts about other things. Simply by keeping up this repetition you can weaken the mind’s tendency to stray, for the mind can take on only one object at a time. This is something you have to observe. The repetition is to prevent the mind from thinking up thoughts and clambering after them.
After you’ve kept up the repetition – you don’t have to count the number of times – the mind will settle down to be aware of the breath with each in-and-out breath. It will begin to be still, neutral, at normalcy.
This is when you focus on the mind instead of the breath. Let go of the breath and focus on the mind – but still be aware of the breath on the side. You don’t have to make note of how long or short the breath is. Make note of the mind staying at normalcy with each in-and-out breath. Remember this carefully so that you can put it into practice.
Here I’d like to condense the steps of breath meditationto show how all four of the tetrads mentioned in the texts can be practiced at once. In other words, is it possible to focus on the body, feelings, the mind, and the Dhamma all in one sitting? This is an important question for all of us. You could, if you wanted to, precisely follow all the steps in the texts so as to develop strong powers of mental absorption (jhana), but it takes a lot of time. It’s not appropriate for those of us who are old and have only a little time left.
What we need is a way of gathering our awareness at the breath long enough to make the mind firm, and then go straight to examining how all formations are inconstant, stressful, and not-self, so that we can see the truth of all formations with each in-and-out breath. If you can keep at this continually, without break, your mindfulness will become firm and snug enough for you to give rise to the discernment that will enable you to gain clear knowledge and vision.
So what follows is a guide to the steps in practicing a condensed form of breath meditation… Give them a try until you find they give rise to knowledge of your own within you. You’re sure to give rise to knowledge of your very own.
The first thing when you’re going to meditate on the breath is to sit straight and keep your mindfulness firm. Breathe in. Breathe out. Make the breath feel open and at ease. Don’t tense your hands, your feet, or any of your joints at all. You have to keep your body in a posture that feels appropriate to your breathing. At the beginning, breathe in long and out long, fairly heavily, and gradually the breath will shorten – sometimes heavy and sometimes light. Then breathe in short and out short for about 10 or 15 minutes and then change.
After a while, when you stay focused mindfully on it, the breath will gradually change. Watch it change for as many minutes as you like, then be aware of the whole breath, all of its subtle sensations. This is the third step, the third step of the first tetrad: sabba-kaya-patisamvedi – focusing on how the breath affects the whole body by watching all the breath sensations in all the various parts of the body, and in particular the sensations related to the in-and-out breath.
From there you focus on the sensation of the breath at any one point. When you do this correctly for a fairly long while, the body – the breath – will gradually grow still. The mind will grow calm. In other words, the breath grows still together with the awareness of the breath. When the subtleties of the breath grow still at the same time that your undistracted awareness settles down, the breath grows even more still. All the sensations in the body gradually grow more and more still. This is the fourth step, the stilling of bodily formations.
As soon as this happens, you begin to be aware of the feelings that arise with the stilling of the body and mind. Whether they are feelings of pleasure or rapture or whatever, they appear clearly enough for you to contemplate them.
The stages through which you have already passed – watching the breath come in and out, long or short – should be enough to make you realize – even though you may not have focused on the idea – that the breath is inconstant. It’s continually changing, from in long and out long to in short and out short, from heavy to light and so forth. This should enable you to read the breath, to understand that there’s nothing constant to it at all. It changes on its own from one moment to the next.
Once you have realized the inconstancy of the body – in other words, of the breath – you’ll be able to see the subtle sensations of pleasure and pain in the realm of feeling. So now you watch feelings, right there in the same place where you’ve been focusing on the breath. Even though they are feelings that arise from the stillness of the body or mind, they’re nevertheless inconstant even in that stillness. They can change. So these changing sensations in the realm of feeling exhibit inconstancy in and of themselves, just like the breath.
When you see change in the body, change in feelings, and change in the mind, this is called seeing the Dhamma, i.e., seeing inconstancy. You have to understand this correctly. Practicing the first tetrad of breath meditation contains all four tetrads of breath meditation. In other words, you see the inconstancy of the body and then contemplate feeling. You see the inconstancy of feeling and then contemplate the mind. The mind, too, is inconstant. This inconstancy of the mind is the Dhamma. To see the Dhamma is to see this inconstancy.
When you see the true nature of all inconstant things, then keep track of that inconstancy at all times, with every in-and-out breath. Keep this up in all your activities to see what happens next. (Note by Tom: the translator of this text has chosen to translate the Pali word anicca as inconstancy; you may be more familiar with the choice of ‘impermance’ for the Pali term anicca.)
What happens next is dispassion. Letting go. This is something you have to know for yourself.
This is what condensed breath meditation is like. I call it condensed because it contains all the steps at once. You don’t have to do one step at a time. Simply focus at one point, the body, and you’ll see the inconstancy of the body. When you see the inconstancy of the body, you’ll have to see feeling. Feeling will have to show its inconstancy. The mind’s sensitivity to feeling, or its thoughts and imaginings, are also inconstant. All of these things keep on changing. This is how you know inconstancy…
If you can become skilled at looking and knowing in this way, you’ll be struck with the inconstancy, stressfulness, and not-selfness of your “self,” and you’ll meet with the genuine Dhamma. The Dhamma that’s constantly changing like a burning fire – burning with inconstancy, stress, and not-selfness – is the Dhamma of the impermanence of all formations.
But further in, in the mind or in the property of consciousness, is something special, beyond the reach of any kind of fire. There, there’s no suffering or stress of any kind at all. This thing that lies “inside”: You could say that it lies within the mind, but it isn’t really in the mind. It’s simply that the contact is there at the mind. Only the extinguishing of all defilement will lead you to know it for yourself. There’s no way you can really describe it.
This “something special” within exists by its very nature, but defilements have it surrounded on all sides. All these counterfeit things – the defilements – keep getting in the way and take possession of everything, so that this special nature remains imprisoned inside at all times. Actually, there’s nothing in the dimension of time that can be compared with it. There’s nothing by which you can label it, but it’s something that you can pierce through to see – i.e., by piercing through defilement, craving, and attachment into the state of mind that is pure, bright, and silent. This is the only thing that’s important.
But it doesn’t have only one level. There are many levels, from the outer bark to the inner bark and on to the sapwood before you reach the heartwood. The genuine Dhamma is like the heartwood, but there’s a lot to the mind that isn’t heartwood: The roots, the branches and leaves of the tree are more than many, but there’s only a little heartwood. The parts that aren’t heartwood will gradually decay and disintegrate, but the heartwood doesn’t decay. That’s one kind of comparison we can make. It’s like a tree that dies standing. The leaves fall away, the branches rot away, the bark and sapwood rot away, leaving nothing but the true heartwood. That’s one comparison we can make with this thing we call deathless, this property that has no birth, no death, no changing. We can also call it nibbana or the Unconditioned. It’s all the same thing.
Now, then. Isn’t this something worth trying to break through to see?…”By: Tom Davidson-Marx