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The End of Suffering
Day 2: Is Meditation Developing Concentration?
(Wednesday, October 6th 1999)
Godwin: There is this idea among meditators which is quite common, that meditation is only developing concentration. In fact, in Sri Lanka when meditators come to the Centre, I ask them what they are trying to achieve in meditation and the invariable answer is that they want to develop concentration. I know that even here some meditators have this idea that meditation is only developing concentration. Certainly concentration has a place in meditation, but there is another important aspect of meditation which is equally or more important. That is what is called vipassana or developing insight.
With this emphasis only on concentration, I know that some meditators have even given up meditation, and when you ask for the reason they say that they are unable to concentrate. And I know that many meditators are struggling with this idea of developing concentration. So in this way meditation can become a battle and sometimes can create even more suffering, when the idea of meditation is to experience joy and freedom.
The Development of Concentration
And then the word concentration may not be the right word, because the word concentration has many meanings, many connotations. I don't know what it means in Chinese, but in English, when you use the word concentration it implies exclusion. Another problem for meditators is trying very hard to maintain and sustain that concentration. This can create a lot of tension and restlessness in one's practice. The Pali word samadhi which is translated as concentration gives an entirely different meaning. For samadhi to be there, the mind and the body have to be completely relaxed. And by trying too hard one can never experience samadhi because in trying too hard and having strong expectations, one can create further problems. It's interesting that according to the Buddhist texts, before one experiences samadhi one has to feel gentle, friendly, and also have an element of joy and bliss in one's practice.
One of the Buddhist texts speaks about eleven benefits of meditation of loving-kindness. One benefit of meditation of loving-kindness is that the mind naturally becomes calm. So in practical terms this means that when you are meditating, if you can learn to be friendly to what is happening, then with that friendliness the mind will become calm and stable naturally.
One of the big problems that meditators have in their meditation with the breath is the idea that they shouldn't be having thoughts, so that when thoughts come they think they are a distraction, a disturbance. So there is a battle in their mind. And the same with physical pain: it becomes a battle. And they try very hard to achieve a calm and stable mind. But if with friendliness the mind becomes calm and stable naturally, then it is easier to sustain that calm mind.
It is interesting that in the Noble Eightfold Path which the Buddha presented as a way of experiencing freedom from suffering, mindfulness comes before samadhi. So it shows very clearly that what is important is learning to be mindful, learning to be aware, just knowing what is happening from moment to moment. From that the samadhi can come naturally. So in practical terms, when we are trying to learn to be aware of our breath, what we can try to do is to be aware of whatever is happening in our mind and body. Even if you realize that your mind is not concentrated, that your mind is not calm, just knowing it, just accepting it can make such a difference.
I live in a lay meditation centre in Sri Lanka and there the emphasis is on how to integrate meditation with daily life as lay people. When Buddhist monks come there to meditate, I sometimes encourage them to go deeper in concentration because they have opportunities, sometimes living in forests or in secluded places, where they can really go deeper in concentration, they can go deeper into samadhi. But when I meet lay people like you, I don't emphasize so much going into deep concentration or samadhi.
So what I discovered with the lay people who were coming to the Centre was that sometimes they would have deep concentration while they were there because it is a very calm and peaceful place which is conducive to the developing of concentration. But what happens when they leave the Centre and go to the main town that is close by is that their concentration is lost, their calm is lost. So because of this, now what I try to do is to emphasize the importance of awareness and also learning to work with distractions and how to handle emotions when they arise in any situation. So when they are in the Centre I encourage them to work with, make friends with, explore unpleasant emotions that create suffering in everyday life. If they can learn to do that while they are in the Centre, when they leave the Centre they can continue to work with these emotions when they arise in any situation in life.
Concentration and Insight
Now I'd like to say something about the connection between samadhi and vipassana, insight. One practical thing which you can do is that when the mind is reasonably calm and stable, then you can investigate, explore any situation in life. So in everyday life when suffering arises - when conflicts arise, when unpleasant emotions arise - you can learn about it, you can explore it, you can investigate it and see how it is created by yourself. And then you can discover tools, how to work with these emotions, how to learn to be free of them.
So the idea is that when you have these pleasant, calm states of mind, not to hold onto them, not to identify yourself with them, but rather to use them in developing insight. I came across a very interesting quotation in one of the Buddhist texts where it says that sometimes calm can come first and insight later, sometimes insight can come first and then calm comes later; that's a very interesting point. They can also sometimes come together. So sometimes this strong distinction we draw between calm and insight doesn't seem to apply because they are really interconnected, interrelated.
What does it mean that when there is insight, calm can come? One way of understanding this in relation to developing insight is that you can allow any thought to arise, any emotion to arise, any sensations to arise; and whatever arises, you just observe, you just watch, you just know. So from that practice sometimes calm can come naturally without your wanting to have calm and tranquility. And sometimes if calm is not there and you are unable to really develop insight in that way, then you can focus your attention on the breath and try to develop some calm and clarity and again start investigating and developing insight.
And in relation to insight, according to the Buddha's teachings there are three characteristics, three important aspects which we have to develop if we are cultivating insight. The first is to develop the understanding, to realize, how things are impermanent, how things are changing from moment to moment. So while we are sitting now, your thoughts are changing from moment to moment; there is one thought, then another thought arises. So there is this continuous change taking place in relation to your thoughts. Sensations in your body are also changing from moment to moment. Your state of mind too is changing from moment to moment; sometimes you may feel happy, sometimes you might feel restless, sometimes you may feel calm. So whatever your state of mind, that is also changing.
It is a very important step to be open to the changes that you are experiencing internally, and then whatever changes take place in your mind and body, if you learn not to resist them and if you learn to be open to them and realize what is happening, there can be any changes taking place but there will be no suffering.
In the same way, externally, the world out there, the life out there is also always changing from moment to moment; sometimes good things happen to us, sometimes bad things happen to us, sometimes unexpected things happen to us. But here again, whatever is happening externally, if you can realize the fact of change, of impermanence, and be open to it, any changes can take place but you can still be free because you recognize that we have no control. Now I am told that very soon a typhoon will come here. Can you prevent that typhoon from coming to Hong Kong? But what we can do is to understand it, to be open to it and as it is said in the Buddha's teachings, to see it just as it is. This is the teaching: I know it sounds very simple!
Another very important insight which we can develop is in relation to our suffering and what causes our suffering. So here again, when we experience suffering, when we experience conflict, when we experience disappointment, when we experience frustration, if you can accept it as a fact you may then realize that the suffering comes in relation to resisting something, not wanting that to happen, wanting something different to happen.
And the last insight, which is very subtle, which is very difficult to grasp, is this insight into no-self, the experiencing of emptiness. In simple terms, when we have an emotion like anger, we have the idea that it is my anger, so you identify yourself with the anger and that's where the anger is creating a problem. When we experience physical pain, again we have this identification, this is my pain. So it is really the idea that things belong to you that brings about this identification and this problem.
So it is through these three insights that we can really free ourselves of our suffering. In doing this, concentration, calm, plays a role but what is more important, as I explained to you earlier, is the developing of wisdom, the developing of insight; developing this wisdom of learning to see things just as they are.
Now if you have any questions, please raise them and I'd like to suggest that you ask questions in relation to what we have been discussing today.
Retreatant: Master Godwin, thank you very much for your practical talks. First of all, would you please answer for me the following questions. Can you explain the difference between awareness and mindfulness; and secondly, is it correct that when our awareness exists, at the same moment, mindfulness occurs? Is that true? Would you please give your ideas? Thank you.
Godwin: So the Pali word for mindfulness and awareness is sati. The word sati is translated in many ways; sometimes they use the word awareness, sometimes they use the word mindfulness, sometimes they use the word attention, sometimes they use the words being alert, being awake. Whatever the translation, the original word is sati and there are many translations of that. The meaning is the same though.
Retreatant: I have got two questions. I think I shall ask them one by one. The first question is, while I meditate, even when my mind is settled down, when I do not suppress the passing thoughts and when there is no pain, it seems that nothing special happens. So where do I place my mind at that moment in order to observe impermanence? What is the object of meditation at that time?
Godwin: So I would suggest sometimes just be with that experience which you described and then naturally some insights can come; so this is one suggestion. The second suggestion is sometimes to ask the question, who is experiencing this calm, who is experiencing this thought-free moment? When you ask that question, you will realize that there is no 'who' apart from whatever is happening. And the third suggestion is that when you come out of your meditation, that state of mind changes, which demonstrates impermanence.
Retreatant: And the second question is that when I meditate, when my mind is stable, I begin to try to dig out my old wounds from the past and train myself not to react to the wounds, in order to heal the wounds in my mind. And then in daily life I find that when I face the same situation again, I do not have any reaction, which means that the wound is healed. But in daily life I might face even more serious events than before and when I face this sort of situation, I become agitated again. That means the wound is not one hundred percent healed. So I would like to know how I can make sure the wound is completely healed, not only partly healed.
Godwin: I'm very happy that you are using your meditation in a very skillful and meaningful way. Actually, when the mind is calm, it is something very useful to try to use that calm mind to heal the wounds that we are carrying by learning to forgive ourselves, learning to forgive others and learning to let go of the past. But the thing is, don't come to the conclusion that the wound is healed. So sometimes, as you rightly said, in everyday life something unexpected happens and then the old wound can arise in a different way. When that happens, please don't be surprised, please don't be disappointed but realize that you have learned something very useful, that the wound is not completely healed, that you are still reacting; and please see it as a learning experience rather than as a failure.
We cannot prevent emotions from arising, we cannot prevent memories in relation to the wounds from arising, but what is important is that you know how to handle them, that you have discovered the tools. Anything can happen: what's important is to use the tools at that time without coming to the conclusion that the wounds will not arise again. Then you will come to the state where whether the wounds arise or whether the wounds do not arise, whether emotions come or whether emotions don't come, it makes no difference, and that is a breakthrough. I am very happy the way you are practising.
Retreatant: I would like to ask whether we can practice meditation in other postures than sitting. For example, can we practice meditation while standing or lying down? And also, do we have to practice meditation inside a house, under a roof? Can we practice meditation outside, like in a park?
Godwin: Yes, one can meditate in four postures: sitting, standing, walking, lying down. And you don't have to always meditate under a roof; sometimes it is very nice to meditate out in nature. We should learn to meditate anywhere because anywhere we are, the mind is working. So there is no special time, there is no special place.
Retreatant: I would like to ask about no-self which you have just mentioned. Although you suggested we could ask ourselves this question, who is feeling the calmness, or who is feeling the pain, when I ask myself this question, the direct answer is that I am feeling the calmness and I am feeling pain. So it is rather difficult for me to grasp what you said about no-self. Do you have any other suggestions?
Godwin: This is the most difficult and profound aspect of the Buddha's teachings. So I'll try to answer your question in a different way. With the sense of self or with this practice of identifying ourselves with things, we feel that we are somebody, especially somebody very important. So all our suffering, all our emotions are related to this idea of being somebody. This somebody wants things his way or her way and when things do not go according to his or her way, that is when suffering comes.
So the no-self idea is being nobody. This idea of 'somebody' can always create suffering because, as I said, he or she wants things his way or her way. But when this idea of being nobody really takes hold, then there are no expectations. Whatever happens there is no problem and that is freedom.
Another way of understanding the Buddha's teaching of no-self is to try to understand this concept of ownership. Because of this idea of self, we think, we assume that we own certain things. So I assume that this cup is my cup. And because it is my cup, when it is broken or when it is stolen, I suffer. So do you see how this idea of ownership, this idea of mine creates suffering? And then we have the same thing in relation to our body. This is my body. And when this my body becomes sick or when this my body becomes old and you have white hair like mine, you suffer as a result of this.
Then we have the same idea in relation to other people: this is my wife, this is my husband, this is my child. So whoever you think belongs to you, you relate to them differently from the people whom you think you don't own; you relate to them in a different way. When my mother dies, I suffer but when another person's mother dies, no problem.
So you see the practical aspect of the Buddha's teachings. This was really the Buddha's approach; as he often said, I teach suffering and the way out of suffering. So this is a very powerful tool, a powerful way of freeing yourselves of suffering. And what causes our suffering is this idea of ownership and this idea that things belong to us. An interesting point to reflect on is what things we think we own. What happens when we die? Do we really take them with us? So this is why I said this is the deepest and the most profound aspect of the Buddha's teachings.
Retreatant: Master, when you talk about the noble eightfold path, I can understand the meaning of each step of the noble path; we start from right thought and then right speech, right effort, etc, until right concentration. But then I still don't understand how we can gain wisdom from right concentration. It seems to me that there is a gap between right concentration and wisdom, so I don't understand how we can practice virtue and concentration and then have wisdom.
Godwin: Very good question. I have found in one of the Buddhist texts a passage where they mentioned the eight steps, and it's interesting that they say that from right concentration there is right wisdom and then there is right liberation. Then there is another text, it's a very interesting text, which says that when there is right concentration, when there is right samadhi you learn to see things as they are. So as I said earlier, from samadhi, naturally you will develop wisdom and you will learn to see things just as they are.
I'd like to briefly go over that text because it's very inspiring, it's very interesting. To my mind, that quotation shows very clearly the Buddha's model of meditation. It starts by saying that when you act skillfully then there is no remorse, no guilt in relation to what you have done. When there is no remorse, then the mind becomes happy. And when the mind is happy, then you experience joy and bliss. And when you experience joy and bliss, then you experience concentration, samadhi. And when you experience samadhi, you see things just as they are. And when you learn to see things just as they are, then you develop dispassion. When you experience dispassion, you know that you are free.
And the Buddha says something very significant, that one stage follows the other in a natural way. So there develops what is called a natural unfolding where one stage leads to the next.
So I am really happy that you asked some very good, very practical, very interesting questions which shows that some of you are really making an effort to practice meditation in a very deep way. This really gives me a lot of joy, happiness and inspiration.
So now we will take a very short break and during the break we can please try to practice silence, and in the silence try to do things slowly and consciously, with awareness. And then after 5 minutes or so, please come back. Try to move slowly and with awareness.
Please sit in a relaxed way and please don't have any expectations of what should happen or what shouldn't happen. So begin by just being aware of your body, the sensations, the movements in your body. And just feel what it is to sit in this posture, just feel what it is to sit with your body completely still.
Now please allow the body to breath naturally. When the body inhales, you know that the body is inhaling; when the body is exhaling, you know that the body is exhaling; and come back to your breath.
Feel the peace and the stillness in this room.
Just feel the in-breath and the out-breath.
Now please open your eyes and when you change your posture, please try to do it with awareness.
We will now do some Pali chanting, and chanting can also be a meditation, experiencing the present moment with the help of the chanting.
Buddham saranam gacchami
Dhamman saranam gacchami
Sangham saranam gacchami
So, may you have a peaceful evening and when you go to sleep, may you sleep peacefully and wake up peacefully, and I hope to see you tomorrow. Thank you.