The practices offered here are based on the traditional teaching of the Pali canon as interpreted through the ancient Theravada commentarial tradition, and as developed by 20th century meditation masters of Myanmar. They work as a family of interrelated and inter-supporting meditation disciplines and constitute the basic contemplative toolkit of this ancient tradition.
My approach to teaching these practices is conservative and traditional, requiring close supervision especially during intensive retreat practice. With the exception of metta, and the other Brahma Viharas, the launching of these practices is best undertaken in a retreat environment to help build the continuity necessary for concentration and energy to develop effectively. Nevertheless, some very dedicated and patient meditators have been able to make good initial progress in non-retreat contexts. Adjustments to the yogi’s practice are provided according to need. During retreats I meet with students on a daily basis. For this reason, retreats are limited to no more than ten students per retreat. Non-retreat practice is looser, but I prefer to meet with students, by video, no less than once a month. Non-retreat progress requires commitment to a daily practice of no less than 45 minutes per day on average, and a sincere attempt to develop day-long mindfulness as best as the meditator’s circumstances allow.
U Ba Khin Body Scanning
This method of vipassana practice was made popular by USN Goenka, a well-known disciple of U Ba Khin. It offers an excellent entry point for understanding and developing satipatthana practice by focusing within bodily awareness, where the impermanent nature of physical sensations are the primary objects of attention. It develops mindful awareness of all the constituents of our bodily experience including the elements, touch and the mental field of feeling that pervades the body. With practice, we can also observe the effect of mind functions and mental states within this field of developed sensitivity. This training incorporates an initial period of breath concentration (anapana-sati) to prepare the mind for deeper work. My approach to the teaching of this method has been heavily influenced by my training with Ruth Dennison who introduced a gentle and organically connected approach. Although I do not consider this practice to be complete in itself, it serves as an excellent foundational training for the later development of full-range satipatthana vipassana.
This method of mindfulness training as taught by the Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw develops the traditional four foundations of mindfulness as described in the Satipatthana Sutta and in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta. It continues to be the most widely taught and accessible of Theravada mindfulness-based training systems of our day. In my opinion it is also the method with the highest success rate in bringing students to the first experience of awakening as understood in the Theravada tradition. Satipatthana develops the meditator’s journey through the progress of insight contemplating mentality and materiality of our subjectivity in its conditioned, and impermanent nature. It leads to the cessation of mental formations, sometime called magga-phala, or path and fruition, the first stage of awakening as understood in the classic Theravada teachings.
Mindfulness of breathing is the Theravada approach to breath centered concentration common to many Buddhist traditions. This meditation can be developed as an adjunct to the development of vipassana to deepen concentration, calm the mind and reduce mental chatter and wandering. It can also be developed as a gateway to the deep absorptive practices of samatha. These lead to increasingly refined states of tranquility and bliss. I teach both approaches to students, as appropriate.
Currently, the development of anapana based samatha practices has been made popular by a number of teachers. Unfortunately, some of these methods are too control oriented and others, in my opinion, to lax. I use an approach that attempts to balance the mastering of attention with the need to let go. I seek to remedy some of the problems found in other training systems, such as head pain, caused by excess focus on control, without falling into the difficulties of drift and torpidity caused by excessively relaxed attention.
The Buddha greatly emphasized this extraordinarily useful practice, but western lay practitioners, often poorly informed by cultural prejudice, tend to neglect it. Repulsiveness of the body meditation is the systematic development of awareness and understanding of the body’s biological nature, in terms of its anatomical constituents and their qualities. Practice begins with the recitation and visualization of a traditional list of 32 parts. The list can be modified to correspond to a more modern understanding of human physiology. These are visualized in oneself and in others. Although meant for development to access concentration, it can be tweaked for samatha development.
This practice serves several purposes. If yogis are beset by strong or persistent lust, this practice will temporarily but effectively pacify it. If the yogi’s level of concentration is deep then “temporary” can be quite a while. However, this bhavana has other more significant rewards. The body when honestly regarded is not lovely. By substituting the common superficial and wishful self-image we have of ourselves or others, we begin to lose some attachment to the idea of the goodness and loveliness of the human form as an object of desire or sentimental attachment. We also come to see the body as partite rather than a unitary reality. These insights correct the strong “I am the body” fixation underpinning the distorted sense of self. Additionally, using this method, mindfulness penetrates the body in a very stable way thus enabling progress in other practices. Most importantly of all, the tone of sober equanimity this meditation generates is the perfect ground on which to build a fuller satipatthana practice.
Metta and the Brahma Viharas
The Brahma Viharas, or Divine Abidings, resting upon moral restraint and benevolence, make up the Theravada tradition’s culture of the heart. The four Divine Abiding meditations are loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha). Respectively, they oppose and decondition anger, hardness of heart, jealousy and partiality. These meditations are altogether lovely, filling the mind with beauty and transforming our relationships to people and all living beings. They can be developed in several ways. Sometimes they are used as “medicine” to help the meditator suffering from anger, prickliness or tightness of the mind during satipatthana or samatha practice. They can be developed as samatha subjects for absorption, or developed as parami (spiritual force in life) and carried into our daily life with the intention of transforming our relationships.
Unlike other forms of concentration, and satipatthana itself, I have never heard of a meditator getting into trouble practicing the Brahma Viharas. Their practice gives full meaning to the disciplines of moral restraint and the exercise of benevolence in our lives.
Samatha training is the systematic development of the eight traditional levels of mental absorption, called jhanas, as taught in Theravada Buddhism as well as in some Tibetan traditions as chiné. First developing strong mental one-pointedness marked by luminosity and rapture (access concentration) the traditional absorptions then lead onward to increasingly refined experiences of mental unification accompanied by deepening tranquility and stillness. The last four four jhanas lead the mind into progressively subtle states of unboundaried formless awareness.
Although jhanas can effectively suppress unwholesome mind states, even for long periods of time if deep enough, and deliver extraordinary happiness and peace, they do not of themselves offer the possibility of spiritual awakening unless they are first grounded in other modes of practice that orient us either through the emptiness of self (such as satipatthana) or toward the Divine via devotion. To the contrary, for the mind not oriented to Sacred Truth beyond the event horizon of its own subjectivity, they are likely to become causes for delusion. This is because they are powerfully altered mental states bringing with them very compelling experiences such as unity of subject and object, deep subjective transparency, great energy and strength of mind. Despite their obviously impermanent and highly conditional nature, they tend to lead the improperly prepared mind to imagine itself as something special or as having attained to some transcendent state. Additionally, the mind that is very concentrated without wisdom or humility can get itself into trouble with various forms of obsessive concentration, sleep deprivation, or kundalini syndrome. For these reasons, I do not teach samatha beyond weak access concentration to yogis who have not first developed the progress of insight and who have no heartfelt devotion to the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Additionally, samatha training comes much more easily to practitioners who have first experienced the cessation of mental formations or who have deep faith the Divine.